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Mission of mercy

By Staff | Mar 6, 2018

Dentist visits aren’t cheap. And if you never think of the cost dental care until you have a toothache, you’re not alone. Over half of Americans don’t get dental care unless they have serious problems, and 1 out of 5 Americans can’t afford it.

But this is the wrong approach, as preventative care actually wards off most oral health problems.

That’s why the Florida Dental Association is bringing Florida’s Mission of Mercy to Southwest Florida. FLA-MOM is a two-day, public dental health event delivering 150 dental chairs and over 1,000 dental professionals expected to treat over 2,000 dental patients, for free.

The importance of oral health is oftentimes overlooked, yet it can impact a person from employability to their overall quality of life.

“For people that can’t afford to go to the dentist, or don’t go for whatever reason, it’s going to benefit their overall health,” said Dr. Cynthia Deragon, a periodontist in Fort Myers.

Deragon serves as one of the 12 Lee delegates working to bring Florida’s annual Mission of Mercy tour to the Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte county area.

“I’d like to see the uninsured, and underserved show up. People who are in need of dental care, and don’t go to the dentist,” she said.

The free FLA-MOM clinic will be held at the Lee County Civic Center from Friday, March 9, to Saturday, March 10. Doors open at 6 a.m. and close at 6 p.m., and patients will be seen on a first-come, first-serve basis. Attendees are advised to arrive early, and no later than 3 p.m., as a huge turn-out is expected. This public health event rotates regionally throughout Florida every year since 2014, and Floridians from all over are expected to travel to Southwest Florida just to receive free care.

Patients are advised to bring blankets, food and water, and any ordinary medications they may take, while on line in the waiting area. All patients will undergo a preliminary health screening to ensure safety before dentists provide free care, and some may be referred to seek medical attention if they are medically unfit for services. One hundred and fifty dental seats will be available at a time, with multiple specialty departments, and dental concierge will be assigned to triage each patient every step of the way.

There is no pre-registration required to receive free dental care at FLA-MOM, and all are welcome. If follow-up care is necessary after receiving treatment at the event, patients will be referred to Project Dentist Care run by Dr. Bill Truax in Fort Myers for a free visit. After the first follow-up, ongoing treatment at Project Dentist Care is only available for those falling in a low-income range.

Services provided at FLA-MOM 2018 will include cleanings, fillings, extractions, and limited root canal therapy. There will also be specific department for pediatrics.

“I’d love to see families just come. If I had a family of five, I would just show up there with my whole family,” said Deragon, “The amount of money you can spend in the dentist office on five people for proactive prevention can be thousands of dollars.” The event is a great opportunity to save on dental care, and teach your kids how to brush their teeth and practice oral health.

Local dentist offices have donated enormous quantities of medical instruments necessary to treat thousands of patients at the Lee County Civic Center this weekend. Although FLA-MOM will be taking place outside of a conventional medical environment, medical safety, equipment, and procedures will adhere to normal medical standards. Federally regulated sterilization processes will be carried out in accordance with typical in-office dentist practices. The sterilization department includes 50 steam pressure sterilizer machines to clean instruments.

The Mission of Mercy is a 501(c)(3) private nonprofit organization providing public dental health access across America. FLA-MOM partners with private donors to leverage health equity in medically underserved areas. In America’s health care system, dental care is a hot debate for health inequity.

“I think in general, dental care and oral health is not covered by medical insurance. It should be, though. It’s part of your body,” Deragon said. “I think it would be wonderful if someday health insurance incorporates the health of the mouth. Somehow insurance companies made this decision and it doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Over 20 percent of the Florida population receive Medicaid insurance, a joint state and federally funded program insuring those with low income. More than half of all federal funds received by Florida go to Medicaid. However, adults on Florida’s Medicaid program are only covered for emergency dental treatment and once-in-a-lifetime dentures. Only children are eligible to receive routine dental care on Medicaid.

But it’s not just Medicaid lacking in oral health. Medicare doesn’t cover most dental care, dental procedures, or supplies, like cleanings, fillings, tooth extractions, dentures, dental plates, or other dental devices. In a 2015 data report, Florida had more than 4 million Medicare beneficiaries, the equivalent of 20 percent of Florida’s population essentially lacking in dental care.

Dentistry in Florida doesn’t meet the demand for Medicaid recipients in Florida. According to a 2014 workforce study of dentistry by the Florida Health Dept., only 15 percent of private-office dentists accept Medicaid, incentivizing use of tax-funded safety nets and emergency room visits. When people lack proper coverage, sometimes the ER is the only oral health option.

According to another study by the Florida Public Health Institute, more than 115,000 hospital emergency room visits in 2010 were for dental care, with charges exceeding $88 million. Much of it may have been avoided with proper preventive care. In 2014, this number reached $193.4 million. Approximately half this amount was billed to Medicaid and Medicare.

“It’s costing a lot of taxpayer dollars,” said Deragon, who says hospitals are too ill-equipped to treat dental problems.

Deragon says that ER visits don’t fix the problem, it puts them off.

“Temporarily getting rid of infection isn’t getting rid of it for good. Sometimes infections take months or years to come back, but it still doesn’t solve the problem,” she said.

The problem is chronic infection, which can lay dormant in the body, causing immune-system overdrive, bodily fatigue, sinus problems, even heart disease. When the ER treats people with gum infection and tooth aches, they typically prescribe patients with pain reliever and an anti-bacterial, but it’s not a lasting cure.

“In other words, the ER gives them a Band-Aid, and they’re OK for a little while. But, they’ll be coming back.”

In addition to its health benefit, Florida’s Mission of Mercy has a financial benefit as well.

The FDA has partnered with a third-party consultant who is conducting an impact study based off data from the Florida Mission of Mercy combined with research from Florida’s hospital data. The research will measure how the FLA-MOM has reduced dental-related ER visits in Florida.

“I think taxpayers will be happy once they hear we are saving them money. I know I am,” Deragon said.

Funded entirely by private entities, the FDA is hoping the findings will convince legislators to secure public funding for FLA-MOM down the road.

FLA-MOM is still in need of community volunteers to help with registration, parking, interpreting, patient services, and hospitality. To volunteer, contact Dr. Cynthia Deragon at 239-275-5257 or Dr. William Truax at 239-561-1949.

The Lee County Civic Center is at 11831 Bayshore Road, North Fort Myers.

For more information, contact floridadental.org/foundation/programs/mission-of-mercy/patients.