Pasco County officials once got excited over a $31,000 state appropriation for a program providing dental care to needy children in west Pasco. They even called in the county government lobbyist to protect the money from a potential gubernatorial veto after a watchdog group labeled it a budget turkey.
That was 16 years ago and those kids are now grownups, but some are not necessarily better off when it comes to dental care. Nearly 80,000 Pasco County adults skip a trip to the dentist each year because they can't afford to pay for the treatment, according to a state Department of Health estimate. That number, based on 2007 telephone surveys, puts the percentage of Pasco's adult population (almost 23 percent) above the state and region averages for dental neglect.
It means plenty of people could use, at the very least, a thorough cleaning and are likely at risk for gum disease, tooth decay or other oral hygiene problems. The most common demographic skimping on dental care: single women younger than 44 earning less than $25,000 a year.
The opportunity to put a better smile on those faces begins again Friday at Grand Dentistry of New Port Richey, at 4530 Grand Blvd., which will be host to a day of free dental care. The practice will provide fillings, cleanings or extractions to 200 adults.
It continues a tradition begun 11 years ago by the practice's former owner, Dr. Vincent Monticciolo, to offer free dental care close to Valentine's Day. Monticciolo's nonprofit foundation, Dentistry from the Heart, has spread across the country and plans a return to Pasco with a permanent location on U.S. 19 in Port Richey to provide free care on a monthly basis. The charity reports that in the last 11 years, more than 300 dental offices around the United States donated $6 million worth of care to 30,000 patients.
The importance of this benevolence locally is magnified by continued high unemployment and home foreclosures in the area. People who've lost their jobs, homes or health insurance don't budget money for dental care or even seek it out with regularity even though there are other free or low-cost dental options available.
Dentists volunteer their time at the Good Samaritan Health Clinic to provide services for the so-called working poor — people without health insurance who do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Patients must qualify financially and are asked for a $5 donation. The Pasco County Health Department — the beneficiary of that $31,000 grant so many years ago — operates its own dental clinic on Little Road serving juvenile Medicaid patients and qualifying adults. These efforts remain vital, particularly after plans to expand indigent dental care at the Mike Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter in Hudson were short-circuited by federal regulations governing the building's design.
But the highly publicized one-day offerings of donated care allow private dentists to reach larger audiences. The line outside the Grand Dentistry of New Port Richey is expected to form at 6 a.m. Friday with dentists seeing patients a hour later. In past years, people started lining up a day in advance.
Patient eagerness is understandable and the humanitarianism of the volunteer dentists is commendable. On Friday, they will be trying to help the less fortunate, one smile at a time.