Free dental clinic coming to Hartford after all

A picture of a row of patients receiving dental care at last year's Mission of Mercy free dental clinic in Bridgeport.

Arielle Levin Becker / CT Mirror

More than 1,700 people received free dental care at last year's Connecticut Mission of Mercy clinic in Bridgeport.

Although it seemed unlikely months ago, the Connecticut Mission of Mercy free dental clinic is coming to Hartford this spring, with plans to provide free care to more than 2,200 people.

Organizers had tried in the past to hold a clinic in Hartford but couldn’t find a venue they could afford. But after news coverage and intervention from city officials and a U.S. senator, clinic organizers reached an agreement with the publicly owned XL Center to rent the facility at a discounted rate.

“This will be our biggest clinic,” said Dr. Bruce Tandy, co-chairman of the annual two-day clinic. It will be held April 25 and 26.

The clinic has dual purposes: Providing treatment and showcasing the need for better access to dental care in Connecticut. Many of the clinic’s patients wait in line overnight for free care, providing a striking visual image of need in what is by some measures the richest state in the nation.

Because of that, organizers had hoped to hold a clinic in Hartford, where it would be visible to lawmakers and accessible to people in a city with a high rate of uninsured residents.

But while they had been able to find venues for past clinics in Tolland, New Haven, Middletown, Waterbury, Danbury and Bridgeport, clinic organizers were not optimistic about reaching a deal with either of the Hartford facilities they considered suitable, the XL Center and the Connecticut Convention Center. Terryl Mitchell Smith, a spokeswoman for the Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees both facilities, said last year that there wasn’t a way to waive costs for particular groups.

A particular stumbling block was food. Typically, local restaurants and chains donate much of the food for the clinic's more than 1,500 volunteers. Groups including the Red Cross also provide food and drinks to people waiting in line. But Tandy said the clinic would have been unable to bring outside food into the convention center, which has its own catering contract. He said holding the event there would have required paying around $150,000.

The Mirror reported on the situation last June. Shortly after, the Hartford mayor’s office got involved. A representative from U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy’s office was also involved in talks about the venue.

The result: The clinic will rent the XL center at a discounted rate, paying about a third of what they originally had been quoted for the convention center, Tandy said.

“We did what we could do,” Smith, the Capital Region Development Authority's director of marketing and public relations, said Wednesday.

Although the authority doesn’t have a policy for waiving costs, she said it worked with the city to arrange for the clinic. “You take it case by case,” she said. “They are paying for it. It’s just at a discounted rate.”

Tandy said the clinic will be able to bring in donated food and has also received what he called a “terrific proposal” from the XL Center’s caterer for some of the food and drinks.

Patients will be able to park free at the city-owned Morgan Street Garage, Tandy said, and the Hilton Hartford is making rooms available at discounted prices for volunteers who stay overnight.

This year’s clinic will have about 136 dental chairs, Tandy said, including 10 dedicated for pregnant women, who research suggests often don’t get the oral health care they need.

Organizers are considering making Hartford the clinic’s home base, holding it there every two years and holding it in different parts of the state during the other years.

The clinic falls during the legislative session, and Tandy hopes lawmakers will visit. The dentists who staff the clinic say every year that their real goal is for the Mission of Mercy to be unnecessary.

“We’re not a solution to the problem,” Tandy said. “This is a charitable dental event that tries to help those who need our help and want our help within the context of what we can actually provide. So if you see that there’s a problem, and you want to help these people in another way, there’s ways within the system to do that.”

About Arielle Levin Becker

Arielle Levin Becker was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on home caretakers from the National Association of Health Journalists. Arielle previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter. She also has covered education and municipal beats for The Courant and for the Home News Tribune of East Brunswick, N.J. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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