Free dental clinic organizers looking to reach smaller cities

The dentists who run the annual Connecticut Mission of Mercy try to give each part of the state a chance to host the massive free dental clinic. There’s need, after all, in every town.

This year’s clinic, which will be held June 7 and 8 in Bridgeport, is expected to draw thousands of people. At each of the previous Missions of Mercy — held in Tolland, New Haven, Middletown, Waterbury and Danbury — people lined up overnight to wait for care, sometimes after traveling across the state.

The one part of the state that hasn’t hosted a Mission of Mercy clinic is Southeastern Connecticut, something that frustrates some area residents, as well as the clinic’s organizers. 

“We went all over the place,” Dr. Ernie Spira, the clinic’s co-chairman, said, describing the search for an appropriate New London site.

The problem: They couldn’t find a spot that was large enough to accommodate 120 dental chairs that also had enough parking for volunteers and patients.

As an alternative, clinic organizers are hoping to host two or three smaller clinics a year in addition to the larger annual one. They recently purchased 30 dental chairs with grant funds from the state Department of Social Services to use at smaller clinics.

Hosting a clinic in Hartford is also on the Mission of Mercy organizers’ wish list. Unlike New London, the problem in Hartford isn’t finding a location. It’s finding one they can afford.

The site of this year’s Mission of Mercy, Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, isn’t charging for use of the facility. The clinic will open at 6 a.m. each day, taking patients on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s expected to serve 2,200 people. Connecticut Mission of Mercy co-chairman Dr. Bruce Tandy advised prospective patients to arrive early.

During a press conference Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr. recalled getting up at 4 a.m. to see the first clinic, in Tolland in 2008. It was raining when he arrived at 5 a.m.

“There were already hundreds of people in line waiting for care,” he said.

Williams and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey praised dentists for making an effort in recent years to treat more children covered by Medicaid, giving nearly all children in the state access to dental care. As a result, nearly all the clinic patients are adults.

“Hundreds of thousands of people in our great state lack adequate oral health care,” said Carol Dingeldey, executive director of the Connecticut State Dental Association. “And unfortunately that number continues to rise.”

While the clinic offers care for a weekend each year, it’s not a substitute for a health care system that works, she added.