RUSKIN — Parents arrived with sleepy children at 6 a.m.
They formed a line that grew as the sun rose Friday morning, snaking through the parking lot at the Suncoast Community Health Center in Ruskin.
Eventually, some were turned away. But none of them could afford to miss a free visit with the dentist.
As part of the national Give Kids A Smile initiative, Hillsborough County dentists, dental hygienists and others volunteered their time to treat nearly 50 children at the government-funded health center.
The day's goal? For every kid to get some form of treatment.
Children age 2 to 17 received an estimated $45,000 in free cleanings, fillings and other dental services along with a new toothbrush and toothpaste.
To receive care, families had to meet federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four in 2010, that means an annual income of $44,100 or less.
The free treatment brought Crystal Worth and her 8-year-old son, Vernon, to the health center just before 7 a.m. Three hours later, they waited to see a dentist.
Around them, parents sat and talked as children played with each other. Vernon said he was hungry.
"He's got at least three cavities," Worth said. "A year ago, he had a filling and it cost $100 here (at Suncoast Community Health.) The expenses hold you back, and as long as they're OK, it's hard to take them to the dentist because it costs so much money."
Along with providing much-needed treatment on Friday, dentists hoped to focus on prevention and the lack of access to care that many low-income families face.
"There's an incredible need, especially in pediatric care," said Dr. Natalie Carr, a Brandon dentist who also is president of the state Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
Between patient X-rays, Carr stopped to explain that while so many dentists donate treatments, the growing need for and lack of access to care outweighs most efforts.
Half of the county's 141,000 children living below the federal poverty level have tooth decay, according to state statistics from 2005, the most recent year available.
Low reimbursement rates from Medicaid don't help, said Dr. Ervin Cerveny, a dentist with Suncoast Community Health. Rates were last set by the state in 1988 and don't begin to cover costs, he said.
A 2008 report released last year by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid concluded that Florida's rates for dental services are among the "poorest in the country."
Poor dental health has been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, low weight births and respiratory disease. Aside from cavities, some of the children doctors saw Friday had abscesses and other more severe issues that ended with extractions.
"The most cost-effective dental care is prevention," Cerveny said. "But by the time we see many of these children, it's too late."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2454.