Jacqueline Wattles Photo
The Connecticut Mission of Mercy will host its sixth annual free dental service clinic in Bridgeport on June 7 and 8 to serve the state’s uninsured and underserved population.

For the past five years, Connecticut residents in need of dental care have flocked to Mission of Mercy’s free dental clinic where patients wait hours in line for care. Each year the queue of 1,000 patients per day has filled up before the clinic’s doors have opened at 6 a.m.

Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, joined Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch today to announce this year’s event, which will take place at the Webster Bank Arena and will service another 2,000 patients in two days.

“The dentists in the state of Connecticut have really stepped up,” Sharkey said. “Mission of Mercy is one of the examples of the volunteer work that they are willing to contribute to provide for the health care needs of the most needy in the state.”

There are roughly 500,000 to 600,000 Connecticut residents without dental insurance, a service that employers are likely to cut first in hard economic times because of its high premiums, according to the Connecticut State Dental Association Executive Director Carol Dingeldey.

“Even for folks that have health insurance, they do not have dental insurance,” Williams said. “It makes no sense to me the way we break that up. We insure the rest of a person’s physical health, but somehow we carve out their teeth, which is so important to our overall health.”

The vast majority of patients seen at the clinic have typically been adults who do not qualify for dental coverage under the state’s HUSKY program, which provides dental care mainly to children under 19. And, because Connecticut was the seventh state to begin offering a free dental clinic, the event has even attracted patients from all over the country.

Dingeldey added that the number of perennial patients is a concern.

“We do see people returning every year, and this has now become their dental home, and that’s, quite honestly, not our desired state,” Dingeldey said. “We want to get people out of pain and provide those most important dental services for them, but it really shouldn’t be their dental home.”

The clinic will provide cleanings, fillings, X-rays, oral exams, root canal treatment, general health screenings, and even oral surgery and temporary partial dentures for as many patients as possible. But the volunteers are limited in their services by time and availability of resources. For example, patients at the clinic will not be able to receive permanent dentures and replacement teeth for extractions will be limited.

“We must keep in mind that the Connecticut Mission of Mercy is not a substitute for a long term solution,” Dingeldey said. “That solution is a health care system that works.”

Even with major health insurance reforms coming to Connecticut with the federal mandates under the Affordable Care Act, the adults without dental insurance that are typical patients at the free clinic are unlikely to be covered because the act only mandates dental coverage for children.

For this reason, doctors like Bruce Tandy, a Mission of Mercy co-chair, continue to call for dental insurance reform while also looking to continue the clinic and service new areas.

“Going forward, we’d really like to take this project into Hartford. We’re going to need a lot of help from our legislators and our corporate sponsors because it’s an expensive undertaking,” Tandy said.

Dr. Michael Perl, who worked with the Connecticut State Dental Association to bring a free clinic to the state, coordinates the annual fundraising for the event, which he said costs roughly a half million dollars to put on. About $250,000 of that is in the form of supplies and services, he said.

The clinic’s co-chairman Dr. Ernie Spira said volunteers come from “all walks of life” and include students from educational programs throughout the state as well as AmeriCorps, a federal community service program. This year more than 1,500 volunteers are expected to work at the Bridgeport clinic.