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Thursday, June 28, 2018 12:23 am

Miles of smiles

Free dental clinic coming to Springfield

Crowds are expected at next month’s free dental clinic, which always features long lines.
Photo Courtesy of Illinois State Dental Society Foundation


The only thing less fun than getting a root canal is not getting a root canal. And so a crowd is expected next month at the Bank of Springfield Center, where dentists from around the state will gather to work for free.

This will be the first time that Springfield will host the Illinois Mission of Mercy, which has been held every other year since 2010. Since the inaugural event in Bloomington, thousands of folks have gotten fillings, partial dentures, cleanings, extractions and other procedures at no cost. In 2016, more than 800 volunteers provided $1.1 million worth of free care in Collinsville.

No tax returns, proof of income or green cards are required. “I don’t think we even ask for a phone number,” says Sarah Jensen, program coordinator. Anyone with a pulse and bad teeth is welcome, and that could be most anyone.

“These often are folks who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Jensen says. “Many of them are service workers who may have health insurance, they just don’t have dental insurance.”

Not every city can host this kind of shindig. First, a town must have a building with at least 45,000 square feet of space to set up 100 dental chairs, plus areas for x-ray gear, for folks to wait and for kids to play, with room left over for caterers. Chairs, dental instruments and other necessities will arrive via semi-trailer from Kansas, where America’s Dentists Care Foundation ships chairs and other equipment across the nation for similar free clinics. Comfort dogs to soothe nerves and slobber on kids while parents get drilled will be locally sourced.

If it sounds like a big deal, it is. Two years ago, people with rotted and broken teeth began arriving the day before, camping outside the Gateway Convention Center to ensure that they would receive care. Greg Johnson, executive director of the Illinois State Dental Society, expects to see as many as 300 people in line outside the Bank of Springfield Center when the two-day clinic opens at 6 a.m. on July 20.

It’s been first-come-first-served at previous events, but this time, 250 slots are being reserved for veterans, who will be screened the day before the clinic starts to determine what they need so that they can go straight to chairs. Everyone else will be evaluated, then treated, as they arrive. The target is 2,000 patients, with a limit of one procedure per visit, and some with multiple issues likely will go through the line more than once.

“We’re going to fill the convention center,” Johnson says. “This will be the entire floor, with the bleachers pushed back.” And so dentists, for once, will be on par with rock stars.

With these kinds of crowds and an election looming, politicians also are expected – they’ve shown up at previous clinics – and Johnson expects to spend a fair amount of time showing candidates and journalists around. Here’s hoping someone asks why, in a country as rich as ours, these sorts of clinics have been thriving across the nation for at least 20 years.

The clinic is coming just as the state has expanded Medicaid coverage to include preventative dental care so that poor people won’t have to pay much for cleanings that can prevent expensive damage down the road. The downside is, reimbursements are so low that fewer than a third of the state’s estimated 9,000 working dentists accept Medicaid cases, according to Johnson. Veterans aren’t much better off, unless they were wounded in the mouth or were held as prisoners of war or are deemed 100-percent disabled. “The Veterans Administration does not provide dental care for most veterans,” says Kimberly Banister, superintendent of the Sangamon County Veterans Assistance Commission, who plans to take a day off work to volunteer at the clinic.

So far, more than 250 dentists have signed up, Jensen says. Dental hygienists, oral surgeons, nurses, medical students and others also are volunteering at such a pace that several shifts already have been filled, although there remains room for more, including folks who know nothing about fixing teeth but can greet patients and help with kids and otherwise make things run smooth.

In a video of the 2016 clinic prepared by the Illinois State Dental Society Foundation, which organizes the events, grateful folks hugged volunteers and wept. “Selfies forever,” proclaimed one smiling woman who received a partial denture to replace a missing front tooth. But there are limits.

“The hardest job that I had in this entire process was the last thing I did here today: I had to stand at the front door and tell people we were closed and wouldn’t be reopening,” J. Barry Howell, an Urbana dentist, says in a video memorializing the 2010 clinic in Bloomington. “There were moms, dads coming in with little kids who needed service, there were people coming in with toothaches who had just gotten off work. We had already filled the capacity that we could, and I had to turn them away.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at


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