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Huge turnout for free dental care at Tampa fairgrounds

Dr. Lauren Companioni works on Peyton Cali, 9, during the Florida Mission of Mercy event organized by the Florida Dental Association at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.
Published Mar. 29, 2014

TAMPA

Like any good chef, Manny Cruz needs to taste what he's cooking. But lately that job requirement has become painful because of four badly decaying teeth.

Cruz has had neither dental insurance nor the cash — $2,500 was the estimate — to get the teeth pulled.

So the 40-year-old Seffner resident was one of the first in line Friday at the Florida Mission of Mercy, a free two-day dental event at the Florida State Fairgrounds. More than four hours after he arrived, he was ushered behind the curtains of the "oral surgery" section. It was worth the wait.

"When your teeth hurt," he said, "it messes up your whole system."

The prospect of free dental work was enough to lure nearly 500 people to the fairgrounds before the gates even opened at 5:30 a.m. By late morning, the 700 volunteer dentists and hygienists had worked on about half of that crowd but hundreds more were still arriving.

Turnout to such free dental events, organizers say, is a sign of the times: a tough economy, lack of dental insurance and low funding for government dental services for children. Similar Mission of Mercy events have been popping up all over the country for the last decade.

"We knew the need was great," said Dr. Nolan Allen, a Clearwater dentist who is co-chairman of the event, which was sponsored by the Florida Dental Association.

Organizers were hoping to provide more than $1 million worth of free care to nearly 2,000 people at the event. Most of the work was for cleanings, extractions and fillings, though they were also doing a limited number of root canals. Because of the huge early turnout, people were being told by late morning to try again today.

Porschea Hammond, 27, and her family got to the fairgrounds at 3:30 a.m. and waited in their car until the gates opened. Hammond was laid off from her job at a residential facility for girls more than a year ago and she hasn't had health insurance since. Her husband also lost his job and coverage, and so the couple have delayed dental work.

Hammond said she needed a molar extracted and her husband probably needed more than that. She said their one-year-old son, Ari, had a fluoride treatment. He toddled over to her knee, looked up and smiled, showing his four tiny teeth.

Colette Williams, a 44-year-old Tampa resident who lost her job with American Airlines four years ago, was No. 65 in line on Friday. She got a cleaning and one filling on what was her first dental visit in four years.

"This is like getting your car done for free," she said. "Do you know how much a crown is? Thank God for this."

Dentists acknowledge that such events are a mere Band-Aid for a deeply entrenched problem. Florida has a severe shortage of dentists — it's one of the 10 worst states in the U.S. on that score — which plays into access problems for many people, said Dr. Scott Tomar, a dentistry professor at the University of Florida.

To cover their significant overhead, dental practices often charge rates that can ding even patients with insurance, he said. And safety-net programs for dental care are thin. Florida Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor, does not cover dental services for adults. It covers children, but the payment rates are so low that only about 15 percent of the state's dentists participate in the program.

County health departments and community health centers provide only limited treatment options. While individual dentists may provide some free care, such as a New Port Richey dentist who hosts an annual free event, organizers said this weekend's event is the first large-scale event in the state. They hope to do more, but no definite plans have been announced.

As patients were methodically moved from gates to dental chairs, they were required to attend a brief educational seminar on proper brushing techniques and nutrition. Lisa Gabler, an instructor from nonprofit More Health Inc., elicited a few gasps when her assistant held up a small jar of sugar — the same amount, she said, in a soft drink.

With every soda, she warned, "you're giving your teeth a sugar bath."

One family in the crowd was Betty Rodriguez, 42, and her 21-year-old son Dioris Rodriguez. They'd heard about the event from their Valrico pastor. It was good timing. Betty broke a tooth last week. And neither has had a good cleaning in some time.

Both are students at Hillsborough Community College. Dioris is studying accounting. And his mother? She laughed.

She's studying to be a dental hygienist.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

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