If you don't think anything is wrong with the American healthcare system, take a stroll through the freezing rain today to the Oregon Convention Center, where several thousand people have been lining up since yesterday morning for the chance to receive free dental care.

An army of 1,000 volunteers and dentists are planning to treat 2,000 people over the two-day Oregon Mission of Mercy at the Convention Center. The need is enormous and the desperation clear: the first person in line showed up yesterday at 9AM.

Freezing for dental.
  • Freezing for dental.

When I showed up at 8:30 this morning, an Obama-length line of people, many wrapped in emergency space blankets and huddling against the cold stretched around the building. The Red Cross spent the morning handing out the silver blankets to patients, but by the time I arrived, they had run out and were reduced to distributing garbage bags with holes cut in the top to serve as ponchos.

The clinic reached daily capacity before it officially opened—people who arrived to the line after about 5:30 AM were told that they could camp out all day and through the night to guarantee a spot for tomorrow.

Renee Piersen and Ken Nelsen were first in line to be seen Tuesday and say they plan to sleep in the line, if necessary, to see a dentist tomorrow: they collected bottles and cans to cover the gas money to drive to the Convention Center from Forest Grove. Both are disabled and unemployed. Piersen needs a couple cavities filled, but Nelsen has a dead tooth that needs pulling—just extracting a tooth has a pricetag of about $200. "It's dead, but there's still a few nerves in there," says Nelsen, pointing to a tooth at the back of his mouth.

Farther up the line, John Hailey complained of the havoc chronic diabetes and no insurance had wreaked on his mouth. From a pocket in his jacket, Hailey pulled out a tiny Ziploc bag with three rotten teeth in it; he yanked them out with his bare hand six months ago, he says. "It hurt less to pull them out than leave them in," says Hailey.

More stories and an explanation of why it's so hard to get cheap dental care in Oregon below the cut.

An army of dentists has taken over the convention center.
  • An army of dentists has taken over the convention center.
Shivering in line right next to John Hailey were sisters Carmen and Goethi Sandoval, natives of Veracruz, Mexico who came to the United States five years and four years ago, respectively. The teenage pair were skipping school to come to the clinic with their mom, who volunteers had let wait inside, where it was warm, because she was holding a baby. Their family does not have insurance, so they showed up to wait in line at 4:30 am. "I have a... what is the black thing on teeth?" said Carmen. "Cavity?" I suggested, and Carmen nodded.

Inside the convention center, hundreds of volunteers in blue scrubs worked with patients who were escorted through a surprisingly orderly series of areas marked with large signs: medical triage, x-rays, fillings, extractions. Anyone who is admitted is guaranteed to have one area of their mouth fixed—basically anything that can be done in 45 minutes.

"We're seeing a lot of extractions, a lot of infected teeth," says Oregon Dental Association President Teri Barichello, who showed me around. Getting affordable dental care is often more difficult than other healthcare, says Barichello, because many insurance programs exclude dental coverage. "Adult dental on the Oregon Health Plan has been cut and cut and cut, all that's left is 'emergency dental' with very little prevention coverage," says Barichello. Poor coverage, combined with a lack of fluoride in Oregon's water, contributes to one of the highest rates of oral disease in the country, says Barichello. "All dental disease is preventable," she notes.

I caught up with Sarah Bostain just as she was coming out of surgery. There were tears in her eyes as she smiled to show off her four new teeth. Bostain she she lost her teeth due to domestic violence and hasn't been able to afford to get them replaced, even after checking with dental colleges who treat patients on the cheap. "It's impossible to get dental care, its just been really difficult," says Bostain. "For me to be able to smile without having to cover my mouth, it's very emotional for me. I feel I have the confidence back that I need."

Sarah Bostain: Before Mission of Mercy, missing four teeth.
  • Sarah Bostain: Before Mission of Mercy, missing four teeth.
Sarah Bostain: After.
  • Sarah Bostain: After.