THIS IS WHAT a broken health care system looks like: Monday morning, November 22, more than 2,000 people huddled in line outside the Oregon Convention Center, waiting for a shot at free dental care.
The first ever Oregon Mission of Mercy organized 1,200 community members and volunteer dentists to fix teeth—for free—over two days. The need was immense: The 758 lucky patients who snagged a spot in a dental chair Monday arrived to wait in line before 5:30 am. Many desperate people camped out overnight on the convention center sidewalk, despite freezing temperatures and heavy rain. The Red Cross handed out emergency space blankets, until they ran out and were reduced to distributing garbage-bag "ponchos" with holes cut in the top.
Portlander John Hailey showed up at 4:45 am and had the holey mouth to prove the damage wrought by chronic diabetes and a lack of insurance. After shelling out $300 for x-rays showing he needed $5,000 in dental work, Hailey, who is unemployed, pulled out three of his own teeth with his bare hands. From his jacket pocket, he revealed a small Ziploc bag with the teeth inside, visibly rotten. "It hurt less to pull it out than leave it in," he said.
Renee Pierson and Ken Nelson turned in bottles and cans for gas money to drive to the event from Forest Grove, showing up at 5:30 am on Monday—just in time to be first in line for Tuesday. Both unemployed and disabled, the pair said they were willing to camp out to get cavities filled and have a dead tooth pulled. "I was really surprised," said Nelson. "I didn't expect there to be that many people."
Inside the convention center, an army of volunteers in blue scrubs scurried around stations marked "Extractions" and "Medical Triage," while drills whined and patients fresh from surgery waited with mouths full of gauze.
Oregon Dental Association President Teri Barichello pinned Oregon's high rate of oral disease on cutbacks in the Oregon Health Plan (OHP) and lack of fluoride in the water. "All dental disease is preventable," says Barichello.
Sixteen percent of Oregonians 65 and older have lost every single one of their teeth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (but even that shocking stat ranks Oregon better than 34 states).
A 2007 state study found that one in four Oregon kids do not have dental insurance and 64 percent of third-graders already had a cavity. Oregon Healthy Kids covers all the dental needs of uninsured Oregon children—but that "uninsured" requirement actually creates a significant gap in coverage: Kids who have medical insurance, but not dental, don't qualify for the public program.
Dental coverage for adults under the OHP was cut back this year due to the state budget crunch, and the Oregon Health Authority was ordered to draw up plans to cut its budget by an additional 25 percent this year.
Coverage under the plan is already spotty; for example, it only covers replacement teeth for people who have had all their teeth removed within the last three months. Portlander Jon Wood braved the cold at the Mission of Mercy on Monday because his Oregon Health Plan insurance would cover the cost of getting an achy tooth pulled, but not replaced—he hoped the volunteer dentists would be able to do better.
Sarah Bostain had tears in her eyes as she smiled with four new teeth on the way to the exit. Bostain said she had lost the teeth years ago because of a domestic violence assault, and she couldn't afford to replace them. "For me to be able to smile without having to cover my mouth, it's very emotional for me," said Bostain.