NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Putting Smiles On All Ages Of Faces

One of America’s top 10 phobias, some experts say, is going to the dentist — a prospect only slightly less attractive than pumping the septic tank or cleaning the oven.

For a good share of Minnesota’s and North Dakota’s most vulnerable, though, it’s a long-awaited blessing.

Two thousand of them, young and old, will be waiting in line when the sun comes up Friday morning … enduring the July heat while waiting for a miracle. That’s when the doors of Concordia College’s Memorial Auditorium will open onto a sight for sore mouths: A 100-chair dental blitz designed to put smiles on faces more accustomed to wincing and hiding their teeth. The dentistry is entirely free to all who need it -— no questions asked.

This is the fifth year that Minnesota dental professionals have staged their Mission of Mercy, and the first time that it’s come to the Red River Valley. Some 250 Minnesota dentists and their North Dakota colleagues converge on Moorhead Friday and Saturday, joined by another 250 white-coated hygienists, dental assistants, lab technicians and pharmacists.

Over the next 36 hours, organizers estimate they’ll be extracting 1,300 teeth, taking 1,700 X-rays, completing 75 root canals, fashioning 1,500 fillings of amalgam and resin, performing 400 fluoride treatments and more than 300 sealants, doing 750 cleanings and installing 100 partial dentures.

“We focus on people, young and old, who are underserved. They have limited or no access to dental care,” retired Moorhead dentist Wayne Christianson explains. “We ask no questions. There are no barriers. If you need dentistry, we will take care of you.”

The dental associations of Minnesota and North Dakota are picking up hard costs of $225,000 to $250,000 through their foundations.

“What strikes me is how oral health is usually the last thing people in need take care of,” Scott Anderson observes. He’s the executive director of the North Dakota group and new to the field of dental care. “Yet it affects so many aspects of someone’s life — their comfort, their self-confidence, even their ability to get through a job interview. Having healthy teeth is a real game changer.”

Since 2012, Minnesota dentists have brought their mission to Mankato, Bemidji and Duluth. Fargo-Moorhead is their largest project by far. It’s expected to draw patients from 100 miles in all directions. There’s no specifically eligible area, however, just as patients aren’t limited by income guidelines or other bureaucratic barriers.

If you need help, Wayne says, just come and get in line. First come, first served.

As their turns come, children and adults will register and have their basic health assessed, then go through a triage station so that their needs can be assessed and rated in order of urgency. Then a volunteer community ambassador will accompany them to their first “appointment” to address their most serious need. Those who need more than one kind of care, as many do — oral surgery and extraction, perhaps, plus cavity repair and cleaning — can return to the end of the line and wait for another helping.

Though the Mission of Mercy welcomes patients from both states, it’s likely that more Minnesotans are going to need its services. That’s because — in dramatic contrast to the usual ranking of public care for vulnerable citizens — Minnesota ranks near the very bottom in Medicaid dental care … while North Dakota is close to the top.

Carmelo Cinqueonce, executive director of the Minnesota Dental Association, says the shortfall dates back to base rates established in 1983 and not substantially altered since. The issue has come before the Legislature time and again — and time and again been sidelined or defeated. The most recent campaign to “Help Minnesota Smile” went down in flames before the 2015-2016 Minnesota Legislature.

Most dental practices are reimbursed only about 27 cents on the dollar. In the face of overhead costs that account for 55 cents to 75 cents per dollar billed, that means that few professionals accept Medicaid patients. Some of the need has been met by practices like Apple Tree Dental Centers, which has eight offices across the state specializing in underserved populations. The closest is in Hawley. Generally, though, dentistry can be exceptionally hard to find in rural Minnesota if you don’t have insurance or the financial wherewithal for direct payment.

Many dentists, like physicians, have long donated their time for health-care missions to Third-World nations. The Mission of Mercy enables them to do the same kind of good and noble work close to home.

So a corps of more than 1,000 good-hearted volunteers, including 600 “civilians” as well as the professional volunteers, is getting ready to welcome our neighbors Friday and Saturday, July 22 and 23. Doors open at 5 a.m. both days. Patients will step through them until about 2:30 both days, allowing enough time for treatments to be completed by 5 p.m. The local bus system is offering free rides to and from the fieldhouse; for those with limited mobility, Gate City Bank is picking up the cost of paratransit.

Organizers say that they’ve experienced a groundswell of volunteer support since the Mission of Mercy was first announced six months ago. They can still use help, though, in two critical areas: They need more trained dental lab technicians, especially Saturday. And they’re in dire need of translators both days, especially helpers who are fluent in Spanish and Somali.

If you have those skills and a few hours to share, just step up and announce yourself at the front desk. Like prospective patients and all the other volunteers already lined up to help, you can count on being welcomed with open arms … and, naturally, great big smiles.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Putting Smiles On All Ages Of Faces”

  • Katherine Tweed July 18, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Excellent — Your article in The Extra and this extra boost can really help people. Thanks


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