Anita Ruff, director, stands in the Oasis Free Clinics dental cleaning room. File photo / The Times Record

Five years after bringing it aboard, Oasis Free Clinics wants to expand its dental program to assist more people in need but the pandemic and a shortage of volunteers are obstacles to be overcome before that can happen.

The Brunswick-based free clinic offers dental, medical and prescription services to patients without health insurance who earn $26,000 or less a year.

The dental clinic has 450 current patients, Executive Director Anita Ruff said. It provides free dental checkups, fillings, extractions and more to eligible residents of Freeport, Durham, Brunswick, Harpswell and all of Sagadahoc County.

“We are the only free dental provider in our area. The closest other one is a free dental clinic in Rockland,” Ruff said. 

Dental services now are available only for existing Oasis medical patients. Her hope is to widen the program to make it available to new patients and to those who may have medical insurance but lack dental coverage.

To do that, Oasis will need to bring on additional volunteer dentists and hygienists, but finding them has been difficult, Ruff said, especially since the pandemic.

The clinic is struggling now just to return to its pre-pandemic scheduling, she said, and is playing “catch up” after closing down in March 2020 through September of this year.

“We get maybe 30 calls a month asking to be seen, and we can’t because we don’t have enough workforce capacity and that’s heartbreaking,” Ruff said.

“Our dental assistant left in November due to health issues and we still can’t hire one. It’s now May and I’ve had that position posted since November,” she said.

The assistant was the only hired position to help with a lack of volunteers. 

“A lot of clinics have shortages and I’m competing for my volunteers,” Ruff said.

The program relies almost entirely on a pool of volunteer dentists and hygienists, which has shrunk during the pandemic, Ruff said.

“Many dentists had losses they had to recover, many were older and couldn’t do it, so we hired a dentist that works one day a week and we are slowly bringing volunteers back,” Ruff said.

The shortage of volunteers means the dental clinic can only operate on Tuesdays, compared to its pre-pandemic Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday schedule.

According to a 2013 report by Maine CDC, the latest report available on dental insurance, “in 2008, only 53% of adults in Maine had dental insurance” and there were 32,969 emergency department visits “due to preventable dental conditions.”

“The dental need in our community is ginormous. Mainecare doesn’t cover dental and very few dentists cover emergencies,” Ruff  said.

Dental care is critical because “oral health is integral to one’s overall physical health and wellbeing, according to Angela Westhoff, executive director of the Maine Dental Association.

“Poor oral hygiene can lead to dental cavities and gum disease and has also been linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Maintaining healthy teeth and gums is so important,” Westhoff said.  “That is why the MDA is advocating for a comprehensive adult Medicaid dental benefit this legislative session.”

Ruff said the 5-year-old partnership of medical and dental clinics under one roof has had a “huge” impact and that she’s proud of the work they’ve done.

“The other day we had a patient in the chair in dental, and the hygienist who does oral cancer screenings said,  “You are on the path to oral cancer,'” Ruff said. 

The patient, a tobacco smoker “freaked out,” she said. He said he wanted to stop and had tried before and failed and wanted to get help with that.

“The hygienist walked 10 feet to the nurse practitioner, and she talked to him right after,” Ruff said.

To learn more, volunteer or donate, visit oasisfreeclinics.org.

Comments are not available on this story.