SCARBOROUGH – People — desperate, hurting people — were waiting in line at the Dunstan Dental Center early Friday. By late afternoon, a team of dentists, oral surgeons and hygienists had treated 120 patients who needed dental care but couldn’t afford it.

For a second year, members of the Greater Portland Dental Society offered their services free of charge. Organizers say they plan to make Dentists Who Care for ME an annual event in November. Over time, they hope to expand it statewide.

The national debate over health care and health insurance has largely ignored the plight of dental care, organizers say, although many people with dental emergencies end up in the hospital emergency room. When money is tight and people are out of work, dental care often is ignored until it becomes an emergency.

“In a down economy, you see a lot of people who are hurting,” said Dr. Barry Saltz, one of the organizers of the event.

More than 600 people received free care last year, with the treatments valued at more than $100,000. Figures for this year were still being tallied late Friday, but Dr. Demi Kouzounas, who originated the event with Saltz, said the demand this year exceeded 2009, and no one was turned away.

Patients who needed more complex surgery received vouchers that are good for referral treatment at a later date.

More than 25 area dentists participated, in Buxton, Gorham, Cumberland, Portland, South Portland, Yarmouth and here in Scarborough. Counting all the participating surgeons and staff, more than 120 professionals were involved.

They saw patients including Lawrence Talley of Standish, who had a tooth extracted. He’s disabled and said Medicare doesn’t cover the root canal procedure that might have saved the tooth.

“I was in a lot of pain for the past five days,” Talley said.

Adriane Williams of Portland, a single mom who’s going to school and has no dental insurance, was suffering from swelling and pain from wisdom teeth that needed to come out. Images showed three teeth were involved, and while some patients might dread the procedure, Williams was smiling as she showed off her first extraction — as best she could under Novocain.

Maine is one of the most underserved states for receiving dental care, according to the Maine Dental Access Coalition. Low-income adults can’t use the state’s MaineCare coverage for a dental problem, until it becomes serious enough to be a medical emergency.

This week’s passage of a $5 million bond issue to upgrade clinics and help create a dental school is a step toward improving the situation, according to John Bastey, a spokesman for the Maine Dental Association, because it would place fourth-year students in community clinics.

But free care days, such as the one held Friday around Portland, and a similar program in Androscoggin County, highlight the extent of the problem, Bastey said.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or tturkel@pressherald.com