Hugh McQuaid Photo

A year ago, Ben Joiner needed a root canal. When he heard the Connecticut Mission of Mercy was hosting a free dental clinic, he drove down from his home in Springfield hoping to get care.

He arrived around 6:30 a.m. and found the clinic already had reached its quota of 1,000 patients, so he turned around.

On Saturday, Joiner brought a folding lawn chair and some thick blankets to Wilby High School in Waterbury where he took his spot near the front of the line for another free dental clinic.

This time he was early — 3:15 a.m. — but when you’ve been waiting on a root canal for an entire year, leaving the house at 1 in the morning seems like a small price to pay, he said.

Why wait a year? “It was either that or pay the utility bills,” he said.

Despite standing out in the cold all morning, Joiner, like many of the hundreds of people in line, seemed appreciative of the Mission of Mercy’s work. He even had a sense of humor.

“You mean I’m not in line for the David Letterman Show?” he quipped.

And a sense of humor and a little appreciation go a long way with the volunteers, of which there are many. The Connecticut Mission of Mercy dental clinic is strictly a volunteer operation, with all the equipment either donated or rented.

Inside the clinic, Project Coordinator Josephine Bicknell was trying to be in several places at once. Sporting a pink ball cap over a head of curly blond hair, Bicknell, who patients and volunteers have taken to calling “Mama Joe,” was talking with a police officer about parking issues while also directing patients.

Bicknell quickly broke down the logistics of the operation — 250 dentists, 100 clinic chairs, 180 dental assistants and 120 dental hygienists. All told, the volunteers number around 1,000. The clinic expects to serve 2,000 patients over the weekend.

The volunteers provide all manner of dental care from simple cleanings to oral surgery and extractions.

Outside, one of those volunteers, Gary Ross, a dentist from Bethany, handed out numbered tickets to patients as they got into line. The tickets enable the clinic to keep track of how many people they’ve served.

Ross helped set up the clinic on Friday and said people already had begun to arrive at about 6:30 that evening. They waited in their cars overnight, he said. When he arrived again at 3:30 a.m. there were already a couple hundred people waiting, he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo

At 8 a.m. the line had stretched back into the high school parking lot and up a short hill. As patients slowly reached the door, they were escorted into the auditorium where they sat awaiting their assessment screenings.

After the screening they are led by a patient escort, or “runner”, to an X-Ray station. In the auditorium, Blake Carson, 25, of New Haven, waited in a line of volunteers to be assigned a patient to escort.

Carson, who also isa member of AmeriCorps, had been there since 5:30 a.m. but said it felt good just to help people. She said one man on disability had expressed gratitude that he was finally getting care.

While patients seemed grateful, many saw the long line as a symptom of a problem with the nation’s healthcare system.

Massage therapist Helen Dutkanicz said it’s been 11 years since she had dental insurance. Saturday was her third time visiting a Mission of Mercy clinic.

“If you had the chance to be out there and see that line, you’d understand what not being able to afford insurance looks like,” she said.

Joiner, a retired Air Force veteran, estimated the hundreds of patients around him represent only the tip of the dental-care “iceberg.” He said he believed if governors and lawmakers knew what it was like to go without coverage, they might make health care for their constituents a higher priority.

“Too bad a certain party wants to cut benefits,” he said, adding he was referring to the Republican Party.

But even with Connecticut’s Democratic governor and legislative majority, government funding of dental care in the state is expected to decrease.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed cutting non-emergency dental care for Medicaid recipients by $20 million over the next two years. Instead of twice-a-year cleanings, checkups, and bitewing X-Rays, Medicaid will cover only one under the proposed budget.

Despite the cuts, Dr. Jonathan Knapp said at a press conference in March that it could be worse.

Hugh McQuaid Photo

“I think given the budget circumstances and the financial times that we find ourselves in, the fact that it was able to be maintained is great,” he said, adding, “I think as times improve and things get better we’d certainly like to have them brought back to where they were and in fact even enhanced beyond that.”

But Knapp said he recognized the risk of non-emergency dental care for adults on Medicaid being eliminated from the budget entirely, and said the group was pleased some funding remains. It’s important that the oral health of adults is addressed as well that of children, he said.

The Connecticut Mission of Mercy will continue its free clinic on Sunday at the Wilby High School in Waterbury. Doors open at 6 a.m. but the line is likely to form much earlier.

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