With the arrival of COVID-19 to Maine, all dental practices were forced to close for everything except emergency care in mid-March. Just like that, all of us lost access to dental care. As the closure went from weeks to months, many of us started to worry about how we were going to have our teeth taken care of. Maybe you lost a filling or broke a tooth, and it was driving your tongue crazy. Perhaps you had an unfixed cavity or a crown that never got cemented. Some of us woke up in the morning feeling like we really needed a good dental cleaning. I heard crazy stories of the lengths that people went through to get their dental abscess finally taken care of.

For the first time for many of us, we did not have access to dental care, and it worried us.

On May 12, at a hearing with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Sen. Susan Collins asked for guidance on how to re-open Maine to routine dental care. In that hearing, she said, “Dental health is so important,” and that a delay in reopening dental practices was creating growing health problems. Suddenly, dental care was considered essential. On May 18, dental practices began to slowly reopen and just like that, Mainers’ access to dental care returned.

Not all of us were so lucky. It is estimated that close to 100,000 of our state’s population has poor access to dental treatment because of a lack of dental insurance or because they just can’t afford it. Ironically, many in this situation are the unsung heroes of this pandemic, working in our grocery and convenience stores, restaurants or automotive centers to name a few. These frontline workers often are unable to afford health insurance (if it is offered), let alone dental insurance. As a result, they forgo dental care until problems worsen and can no longer be ignored. In other words, routine dental care is rarely available to them except for emergencies — just like it was for the rest of us until May 18th.

Now we all know what it feels like to not get dental care when we want or need it.

For adults who have MaineCare, emergencies are the only dental services covered, and those are very difficult to obtain. Dental pain is the top reason for emergency department visits among those with MaineCare and for uninsured adults under 44. This is the worst place to treat dental issues, as it is costly care that won’t take care of the root problem — the infected tooth. At the emergency department, most likely you will receive antibiotics and pain medication, which does not address the problem. That is why 35% of patients who go to the emergency department for dental issues return for a second costly visit once the antibiotics wear off. The system is broken!

This is why Oasis Free Clinics began providing free dental services to our patients. Since 2006, volunteer dental providers have helped our patients — uninsured, low income adults with no health insurance — with free dental care. We have helped thousands of people over the years, all at no cost to our patients, thanks to the generosity of our volunteers and funding from donors, foundations, local businesses, churches and the United Way of Mid Coast Maine.

During the nine months before COVID-19 came to our area in March, our 15 volunteer providers, along with our staff dental hygienist, placed over 350 fillings, extracted 140 teeth and cleaned the teeth of 120 people. The challenge for us is that the need is overwhelming, and our resources are limited. We want to do more, but we need help to do so. Here’s how you can lend your support:

· Ask your dentist or dental hygienist if s/he volunteers at Oasis. If they do, please thank them! Our local dentists have given thousands of hours of their time to our patients, and we couldn’t do our work without them.

· If you are a dental professional, please consider volunteering at Oasis. Call 721-9277 to talk about volunteering.

· Please consider making a donation to Oasis Free Clinics. Dental services are expensive to deliver especially now due to COVID-19, and we have our eye on the future for potential expansion. For every dollar donated, we provide $4 in free dental care. That means a $100 donation will provide $400 in free dental care. On average, it costs $1,000 to restore someone’s smile. To donate, visit www.OasisFreeClinics.org/donate

· Watch for bills in Augusta for the expansion of MaineCare to include adult dental services.

· Visit www.OasisFreeClinics.org for more information.

Rick Elsaesser is the Oasis Free Clinics dental director. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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