This year’s Connecticut Mission of Mercy, the annual free dental clinic that draws thousands of state residents seeking oral health care, will be held March 23 and 24 in Danbury.

The clinic will begin at 6 a.m. each day and will be held at the O’Neill Center at Western Connecticut State University’s West Side Campus, 43 Lake Ave. Extension. Care will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Mission of Mercy dental clinics, now held in more than a dozen states, are intended to provide care to people who need it and to raise awareness of the need for better access to dental care. Many more adults lack dental insurance than health insurance, and even some with coverage struggle to pay for the care they need. Medicare does not provide dental coverage, while Medicaid in Connecticut pays dentists low rates for caring for adults, making it hard for many to find dentists to treat them.

At the four previous Mission of Mercy clinics in Connecticut, many people arrived early and waited overnight to be seen. Together the Connecticut clinics have served close to 7,000 patients, providing what organizers estimate is more than $3.6 million in free dental care.

The clinics are staffed by volunteer dentists, hygienists and others who typically work for 12 hours or more each day. Dr. Robert Schreibman, a Glastonbury pediatric dentist who co-chairs the Mission of Mercy, said this year’s event is expected to draw 1,600 volunteers and have more than 100 dental chairs.

Schreibman said organizers have conducted a blanket drive for those who arrive early to wait to be seen, and also expect to provide juice, hot coffee and snacks to people in line.

Carol Dingeldey, executive director of the Connecticut State Dental Association, one of the event’s sponsors, said during a press conference Wednesday that the Mission of Mercy is not a substitute for a long-term solution for increasing access to dental care. But she said it has helped to begin a conversation about the need that exists in Connecticut, where between 600,000 and 1 million people do not have access to dental care.

Previous clinics have been held in Tolland, New Haven, Middletown and Waterbury. Schreibman said next year’s clinic is expected to be held in New London, and organizers are hoping to hold one in Hartford the year after.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She 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 caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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