COLLEGE PARK — The University of Maryland School of Public Health, along with Catholic Charities of Washington, D.C. and the Maryland State Dental Association, hosted the Mission of Mercy and Health Equity Festival at the Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland on Sept. 13 and Sept. 14.
The festival offers free dental services, HIV testing, flu shots and vision and hearing tests to low-income, underinsured and uninsured Maryland residents.
Approximately 1,500 volunteers, dentists, hygienists and dental assistants provided free dental care and health screenings to over 1,000 adults, to what amounted to $1.5 million in projected costs, all paid for by donations from nonprofits and local businesses.
With 120 dental chairs in the center, visitors waited in line to be seen by dentists, who would decide how severe their situation is, what kind of treatment they needed and what could be provided for them. The first patients taken suffered through serious situations, such as tooth abscesses.
The first festival was held in Baltimore in 2014, and then again in 2018. If the event is properly funded, the aim is to hold it every other year.
“The ultimate goal is to connect people with dental care,” said Kelly Blake, communications for the public health school.
Just this August, the state launched a pilot program that would offer two oral exams, two cleanings and up to five filings or extractions per year, to only a percentage of people currently on Medicaid. The program is designed to show that paying for dental care for low-income adults saves money, as it will lower mouth-related emergency room visits.
“It’s a start, but it’s not enough,” said Blake. “Emergency rooms can’t afford to help people’s tooth problems.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Maryland, 18% of low-income adults say their mouths are in poor condition, compared to just 3 % of high-income adults. 29 % of low-income adults say they avoid smiling due to the condition of their mouths and teeth. Over half of adults say they have not visited the dentist in over 12 months due to the cost of dental care.
Leonard Drumno, an engineer at Foulger Pratt in Potomac, often complained of a toothache and needing work done. His friend recommended visiting the festival, where he got a cleaning and a filling done. He called off work to attend.
“Dental work is expensive,” said the friend, who asked to remain anonymous. “Even if you have insurance you have to pay out of pocket. He kept complaining, so I said go to this (event).”
The center opened its doors at 7 a.m., but people were waiting in line much earlier. Jose Antonio got in line at 4:30 a.m. for a general cleaning, and was still in by 3 p.m., waiting for his wife to receive treatment. But to him, the wait was worth it.
“It was amazing,” said Antonio. “I’m very happy to get this kind of service for free. They are such experts in the job.”
Antonio regularly visited the dentist every six months before losing his insurance one and a half years ago.
“I had to do a deep cleaning because one and a half is a very long time,” he said.
Zoe Lee, a pre-dental student at the university, volunteers at Catholic Charities and is currently shadowing her mentor, Dr. Tristam Kruger, chairman of Mid Maryland Mission of Mercy. She’s found things going smoothly through the day on Friday.
“Some of the patients cry or something so it gets delayed. Surgery is a big thing,” said Lee. “But (Kruger) is really fast.”
For Lee, there is no significant difference between the festival, held in the middle of a basketball court, and a typical dentist’s office. Most equipment is one-time use, whereas an office will be able to recycle certain things. Because there’s no plumbing, Lee often has to fetch water.
“This is not their preferred working environment,” said Blake. “But they have the tools they need to provide comprehensive dental service.”
Dr. Ramsay Koury, a dentist and faculty member at the university, agreed that the equipment is “not what we’re used to.”
“But it’s functional,” he said. “(The students) are young. It won’t break their backs.”
According to Koury, about 100 students and a dozen faculty members volunteered at the festival. So many, at one point they had to begin turning students away.
“I’m hoping to train volunteers and be fulfilled with what we’re doing,” Koury said. “We don’t have to worry about insurance money. We can do our best. We’re free to do pure dentistry and pure helping people.”