America’s Dental Crisis: A Personal Kick in the Teeth

100 million Americans lack access to proper dental care—TakePart's Matt Fleischer is one of them.
A patient gets dental care at an annual Los Angeles free clinic. (Photo: Jason Redmond/Reuters)
Sep 26, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

It’s noon in South Los Angeles, and I’m waiting in line with thousands of other people outside the Los Angeles Sports Arena. I’ve been here with my girlfriend since the cool, pre-dawn hours. We were not the first to arrive. Hundreds slept in the streets overnight.

Now it’s 90-something degrees without a cloud in the sky, and the hot sun is beating down on us. Tempers, like the temperature, are beginning to escalate.

No, this was not a rush for the new iPhone 5. We’re here to get free, no-questions-asked medical care from a once-a-year pop-up clinic provided by the nonprofit Care Harbor—and there are only enough spots for so many people.

MORE: “Remote” Pop-Up Health Clinic Gives Thousands Free Care

Undoubtedly for some here, the treatment they receive could mean the difference between life and death. For the vast majority, however, like my girlfriend, the charity medical care will hopefully mean the end of serious, chronic dental pain.

Two years ago, you see, my girlfriend was laid off from her job in the fashion industry. The part-time job she’s currently working does not provide her with dental insurance. She was paying for her dental care out of pocket, until she was told that a previously botched root canal had become infected. She needs roughly $3,000 worth of surgery—and an extremely skilled dentist—to correct the procedure.

Every dentist she contacted wants his money up front. Despite her best efforts, she has yet to find a free clinic in Los Angeles capable of handling her surgery.

“Could the same guy who gave me pink eye really be trusted? Or was he trying to bilk my insurer by turning me into a human cavity gold mine?”

My girlfriend is not alone in her predicament. Care Harbor has run its clinic in Los Angeles for several years, and the vast majority of medical requests they receive are for dental care. More than 100 million people in America are unable to afford proper dental care, according to a recent Frontline investigation into predatory practices in the dental industry.

Many U.S. residents “lucky” enough to have dental insurance are tricked into undergoing unnecessary procedures that unscrupulous dentists can bill to insurers. One organization Frontline investigated, Kool Smiles, ostensibly aimed at helping poor children receive dental care, has allegedly been pushing poor children covered by Medicare into painful treatments that rack up costs.

My own recent experience with dental insurance has been similar to the alleged treatment of the Kool Smiles kids. As a freelance journalist whose Cobra benefits expired after I was laid off from a staff job, I signed up for private dental insurance about a year ago. I’ve only had two cavities in my lifetime; so I figured I wouldn’t need much more than a few cleanings.

During my first visit, however, my dentist—assigned to me by my insurance company—insisted I wear protective goggles that had not been sanitized. I contracted pink eye—a condition that cost me another $100 in doctor visits and antibiotics.

The dentist also told me I had four cavities—despite the fact I had no pain or cold sensitivity.

Could the same guy who gave me pink eye really be trusted? Or was he trying to bilk my insurer by turning me into a human cavity gold mine?

Though I initially went to the pop-up clinic in support of my girlfriend, I realized that, even with my insurance, I needed help too. I needed an honest assessment of my medical needs, from people with no incentive to rip me off or fill my mouth with unnecessary lead.

Back at the Sports Arena, shortly after noon, organizers announce plans to get the line moving. We won’t be receiving any medical treatment today. Care Harbor will hand out wristbands—which will entitle us to come back over the weekend for care.

It’s unlikely there will be enough wristbands for everyone, as the line now practically wraps around the arena.

Several near fights break out as people jostle for position. Many attempt to cut. Some are successful. Fourty-five minutes later, my girlfriend and I both exit the fray with wristbands. There are still thousands in line behind us.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 10,242 new practitioners would be required to meet America’s dental needs—and they would have to work largely for free or at severely discounted rates.

Despite some mild dehydration, the origins of sunburn and nearly eight hours in line, my girlfriend and I consider ourselves quite lucky. We have yet to see any certified medical caregiver, but at least we have hope that an encounter with a dentist is somewhere in our near future.

We’ll see how things go this weekend. Bookmark this story’s URL and check back in with TakePart on Monday for an update.

*Update: When my girlfriend and I arrived at the clinic early Saturday morning, there was already a huge line in front of us. By the time we got inside, we were told all available slots for dental work had been filled. We would not be able to receive any treatment. Our quest for reliable, affordable dental care continues.

How many hoops have you had to jump through for basic health care? Share your pains in COMMENTS.