Concerned about Tucsonans’ limited access to free dental care, organizers of the Phoenix-based Mission of Mercy are extending an invitation for local residents to attend their charity event.
The sixth annual dental event is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 8, and Saturday, Dec. 9, at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. Organizers hope to help about 2,000 people — both adults and children. The help is free — first come, first served — and no identification or other documentation is required.
Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy organizers say Southern Arizonans, if they can get themselves to Phoenix, are welcome to attend and get free oral health care. Three hundred dentists have volunteered their services.
People typically begin lining up the day before the event begins. Overnight camping is allowed.
“We read about what happened with the dentists at Hope Fest in Tucson and we felt really bad about that,” said Kevin Conroy, executive director of the Central Arizona Dental Society Foundation, which puts on the annual Mission of Mercy event in Phoenix.
“So we want to make sure they know about what we’re doing.”
A free day of dental care had been part of the annual Hope Fest event in Tucson for at least 20 years.
The event for low-income residents in Tucson offers free hygiene items, haircuts and medical services, among other things, and regularly attracts upward of 10,000 people.
But dental services were not a part of this year’s Hope Fest event, which was held Oct. 28.
Volunteer dentists, who say the one-day event was not enough to help everyone who needed it, pulled out this year. They are meeting next week for a Hope Fest Town Hall to discuss alternative ways to offer free, local oral health care, perhaps on an ongoing basis.
Hope Fest was Tucson’s largest, most comprehensive charity dental event and competition to get dental care was fierce. Arguments often broke out in the long lineups.
Other low-cost and no-cost dental options in Southern Arizona are available but limited, said Alicia Thompson, manager of the dental department at El Rio Community Health Center and also coordinator of the Southern Arizona Oral Health Coalition.
Thompson said while the invitation from Mission of Mercy organizers is thoughtful, getting there may not be possible for the people who need dental care the most.
“The populations from our county who could make it to Phoenix could probably afford to go to the dentist,” Thompson said.
“The people who need it (dental care) the most have challenges with transportation issues as it is. Are people from Santa Cruz or Cochise County going to go all the way to Phoenix to attend Mission of Mercy? Where are they going to stay? What are they going to do when their car breaks down?”
Thompson stressed that dental stakeholders who were part of Hope Fest are looking to find a solution soon that is accessible to Southern Arizonans. Part of that solution will be dental health education, to increase awareness that dental health is part of overall health, she said.
Cleaning and extractions
The Mission of Mercy event, which offers solely dental care, is the largest charity dental event in Arizona.
The event is primarily focused on adults, but children can get care, too, said Conroy, who is on the board of the national Kansas-based America’s Dentists Care Foundation, which puts on Mission of Mercy dental events in more than 20 states.
“They have three tractor-trailers that they load up and send to the various states. And that becomes the Mission of Mercy program. They supply equipment,” Conroy said.
There are some people who come to the Mission of Mercy event year after year to get a dental cleaning, who say they would not otherwise be able to afford it, Conroy said. Others need teeth extractions.
Thousands of extractions were performed at the event last year, he said, noting that there were individuals who needed 13 or 14 teeth pulled in one day.
“We screen everybody first medically to make sure their blood pressure, blood sugars are all in check and that they can get treatment that day,” Conroy said.
“I would say we mostly do oral surgery — extractions, followed by hygiene cleanings. We also offer root canals on anterior teeth.”
A limited number of dentures are available, too.
There’s another upcoming event where free dental care will be available to veterans, and it’s also in Phoenix, Conroy said. The Maricopa County StandDown is scheduled for Jan. 25 and 26, also at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
That event, for military veterans at risk of homelessness or experiencing it already, is coordinated by the Arizona Housing Coalition’s Arizona Veterans StandDown Alliance, which serves military veterans and their families. Dental services are one component of a larger event for veterans.
“Whatever it takes”
Arizona’s Medicaid program, a government insurance program for low-income people, includes comprehensive dental care for children but up until this year did not offer any dental coverage for nondisabled adults.
On Oct. 1, the program began offering a $1,000 per year benefit for emergency dental services to low-income adults, but that benefit doesn’t include preventive care, including teeth cleanings.
Dental problems are closely tied to poverty and at 19 percent, Pima County’s poverty rate is higher than both the national and state levels.
Left untreated, dental health problems can cause pain and tooth loss, impede productivity and job opportunities, cause problems speaking, eating and learning, and complicate the detection of oral cancers.
People without dental care are vulnerable to heart and kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and even premature death.
Twenty-nine percent of low-income Arizona adults reduce their participation in social activities due to the condition of their mouth and teeth, says the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute, using data from a 2015 survey.
Tucson resident Jodi Rivera, 39, said she doesn’t have a car but she’ll do whatever it takes to get to Phoenix for the Mission of Mercy.
Rivera, who is covered by Medicaid and works as a personal assistant, has no upper teeth and 11 bottom teeth. She avoids smiling, can only eat soft foods, and desperately wants upper dentures.
Rivera is going to try to find a ride to the Mission of Mercy. She’d have no problem camping overnight and standing in line, she said.
“The girl in front of me in line at Hope Fest last year was the last one to get dentures,” she said.
“I was counting on coming back this year. I’d been looking forward to it and making plans for so long. When I found out there was no dental … it ruined my whole year.”