Roger Green left home at 3:50 a.m., drove 70 miles to Hartford and spent more than three hours in line for a chance at getting free dental care.
He hoped by the end of the day he’d no longer be ashamed to smile.
“I do hide it, there’s no question about it,” Green, 47, said of his chipped and decayed front teeth. He wants to take a picture with his family and actually smile. But with no dental or health insurance and a family to support, Green said it’s hard to get the care he needs.
Standing outside the XL Center in downtown Hartford Friday morning, Green was the 626th person in line for the Connecticut Mission of Mercy, an annual, two-day free dental clinic that typically serves more than 2,000 people. The clinic, held in a different part of the state each year, will run through about 6 p.m. Friday and open again at 6 a.m. Saturday.
The first patients arrived at 7:20 a.m. Thursday, nearly 23 hours before the clinic opened. At 8:20 Friday morning, the line wrapped around the block.
“I wish we didn’t need this whole thing, but we do,” said Dr. Michael Perl, a retired dentist and co-chairman of the clinic.
The clinic has dual purposes: Provide free care to people who need it. And raise awareness of the extensive need for dental care in what is by some measures the wealthiest state in the country.
While Connecticut has a relatively low rate of residents without health insurance, many more lack dental coverage, including people on Medicare, and even those with dental insurance often have limited coverage that leaves them unable to afford major work.
This year’s clinic was the first since the requirement that nearly all people in the U.S. have health insurance took effect as part of the federal health law commonly known as Obamacare. But many clinic patients said they didn’t have coverage. Some said they hadn’t tried to get it. Others said it was too expensive, or they were waiting for their Medicaid applications to be processed, or that they were hoping to get a job soon that would provide insurance.
“We finally got Obamacare. Now we need Obamacare, but in the dental field,” said Frank Jakubiak, a 63-year-old New Britain resident who had waited since 9:30 Thursday night to get a tooth fixed. Jakubiak has medical coverage through the Veterans Health Administration, but it only covers his dental care in an emergency.
Jakubiak knows he can get free dental care twice a year: At the Mission of Mercy clinic and at the Stand Down the state holds each year to provide assistance to veterans.
Samantha Leonard, a single mother from Derby, said she had applied for Medicaid but currently had no health or dental insurance. She and her stepfather got to Hartford at 7:30 Thursday night. By 8:30 Friday morning, she’d been through the clinic and had two teeth pulled (and eight Novocaine shots). She still had cavities to fill, though, so she got back in line to wait for more care.
Ken Luce II, who waited overnight nearly as long as Leonard, described the experience as bittersweet. The Vernon resident didn’t mind the wait; he brought a camping chair and a backpack full of sweatshirts, food and drinks. People who saw a story about the clinic on the news Thursday night came by with pizza for those waiting. Another couple came by with coffee.
But as the clinic opening approached, Luce got a little less excited. He said he realized, “Oh wait, I’m here to see the dentist.” He said he doesn’t have the $1,200 needed to pay for the care himself.
“I’ve never seen so many people in my life so happy to go to the dentist,” he said.
After having a tooth extracted, Luce praised the experience and said the volunteers treated patients “almost like royalty.”
Luce, 31, said he usually doesn’t get dental care, even cleanings. “My mom’s on me about it,” he said. He has a temp job as a machine operator and no health or dental insurance, but said he expects to get insurance when he’s hired full time.
“Next year, I’m probably going to volunteer if I’m not here [in line],” he said.
The clinic had 135 dental chairs and more than 1,700 volunteers. It also, for the first time this year, had a section for pregnant women. Evidence suggests that mothers’ oral health is strongly connected to their children’s dental health, but research indicates that fewer than half of pregnant women seek dental care.
There was a separate entrance for pregnant women so they wouldn’t have to wait in the lengthy line, but in the clinic’s early hours, the demand wasn’t high.
Nayely Reyes isn’t pregnant but came in part because of her children: Her doctor had advised her that she should take care of her health and teeth to set a model for them.
Reyes, who lives in South Windsor, said she never saw a dentist as a child growing up in Mexico. Her first dental visit was when she was pregnant with her daughter, about 5 years ago. She hasn’t been since, despite having discomfort in her teeth for the past several months. She doesn’t have health or dental insurance.
Reyes, 27, and her 9-month-old son, Nathan, arrived in Hartford around 4 a.m. Once inside, Nathan got his first dental checkup and lay in a stroller draped in blankets as Reyes waited to have two teeth extracted. She said she’d been told the work she needed done would cost around $5,000 if it wasn’t provided at the clinic.
Green, the patient hoping for a better smile, said he’d inquired about getting his teeth fixed before and was quoted $5,000. He needed a root canal and a cleaning and said some teeth in the back probably needed to come out.
An auto technician, Green doesn’t have insurance but hopes he’ll get it soon if he gets a new job at a dealership opening soon.
“This is really going to help me out a lot today if they can do this for me,” he said. “I very much appreciate it.”