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Kansas Mission Of Mercy Expected To Provide Free Dental Services To 1,000 Kansans

Andy Marso
Heartland Health Monitor
Topkea dentist larry Betsworth, left, leads a group of Kansas legislators on a tour of the Mission of Mercy dental clinic during setup Thursday.

The line for free dental care started forming outside the Kansas Expocentre more than 24 hours before the doors opened.

Daniel Veach was among those waiting for the Kansas Dental Association’s Mission of Mercy to begin.

The annual two-day dental clinic wasn’t scheduled to open until about 5 a.m. Friday. But Veach and his mother left their Hutchinson home Wednesday night and arrived early Thursday at the Expocentre. They weren’t first in line, but they were close.

Credit Andy Marso / Heartland Health Monitor
Heartland Health Monitor
A line had formed by midday Thursday outside the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka for free dental services offered by the Mission of Mercy, although the clinic wasn't scheduled to open until 5 a.m. Friday.

“Part of the reason we got here so early is, we didn’t want to drive all that way for nothing,” Veach says.

Inside the Expocentre, volunteers were setting up 92 dental chairs.

John Fales, a pediatric dentist from Olathe who has volunteered at the state’s previous 14 Missions of Mercy, says the dentists will stay until late Saturday and try to care for everyone who shows up.

“We give back as much as we can,” Fales says. “It’s about people helping people.”

Kansas is the third state to offer the free dental clinics, Fales says, following Virginia and Texas. Now about half the states do.

Kevin Robertson, executive director of the Kansas Dental Association, says the association expects to provide about $1.2 million worth of dental care to about 800 or 900 patients this weekend.

More than 100 dentists and almost 1,000 volunteers are needed to pull it off.

“A lot of people get care here — good, quality care,” Topeka dentist Larre Betsworth told a group of legislators who toured the clinic during setup Thursday. “We make a lot of friends.”

Betsworth says the dental teams at the Expocentre will be able to do full-mouth extractions, which was what Veach was hoping for.

Veach, 27, says he lives with near-constant mouth pain.

“Quite a bit, yeah, most of the time,” he says. “Got to watch what I eat.”

Veach works a warehouse job, but he says the hours are irregular and he has no dental coverage. His mother says she planned to use her tax refund to pay for his extractions, but when she found out they would be more than $100 per tooth, she knew she wouldn’t have enough money.

So they made a point to travel to Mission of Mercy.

Hundreds of other Kansans will do the same this weekend.

Fales says neglect of preventive care and the state’s methamphetamine problem contribute to the demand for Mission of Mercy among adults. Similar events in other states don’t serve children because minors have full dental coverage under Medicaid, but in Kansas the reimbursements are so low many dentists won’t take Medicaid patients.

“If you’re running a business, you’ve got to keep the lights on,” Fales says.

For years a coalition called the Kansas Dental Project has asked legislators to allow licensing of mid-level dental practitioners who would be able to provide more treatment than dental hygienists but fewer than dentists.

The state’s dental association has opposed the proposal, citing patient safety.

Katrina McGivern, the coalition’s policy and public affairs director, said it’s great that the people who come to Mission of Mercy get caught up on dental care, but they also need follow-up care.

With 83 percent of Kansas counties short on dental providers, mid-level “dental therapists” could help, she says.

“Our safety net clinics are strong supporters of dental therapists,” McGivern says. “They’re all excited to get them in their offices and clinics and be able to reach that underserved population.”

Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence who took the Mission of Mercy tour Thursday, says he was “amazed at the number of patients they serve in such a short amount of time — and that they do so with such hospitality and professionalism.”

But Wilson says the scope of the event also underscores the need for dental care in Kansas and the potential benefit of raising Medicaid reimbursement rates.

“Of course that is yet another item on a long list of opportunities that aren’t possible due to our budget crisis,” Wilson says.  

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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