Health beat: For two days, free dental checkups in Mankato

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2012 - 5:52 PM

Next week, 2,000 people will get free dental care at an arena in Mankato. Sponsors expect such a heavy turnout that the line may start forming the night before.

The free clinic, which runs Aug. 17-18, will be staffed by about 1,000 volunteers, including dentists and hygienists, at the Verizon Wireless Center, using about 100 dental chairs. The Minnesota Dental Association, which is co-sponsoring the Minnesota Mission of Mercy event, says it's a way to highlight the need for better access to care, especially for people with little or no insurance.

But it may not be easy to get in. Although doors open at 5:30 a.m., there's no advance signup; patients will be seen on a first-come, first-served basis. Each day's quota is expected to be filled by noon, so long waits are likely.

This is the first time the dental association has held a mass clinic for patients of all ages, said spokeswoman Carol Embertson. The services will include teeth cleaning, fillings, extractions and even some root canals (though no crowns or dentures).

It's no secret that many Minnesotans go without dental care, often because of cost. Community clinics, which provide subsidized dental care for thousands of low-income Minnesotans, often have three- to four-month waiting lists, said Rhonda Degelau, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers.

Part of the problem, she said, is that many private dental clinics won't accept Medical Assistance patients because of the low payments. "I think it's wonderful that the dental association is sponsoring this," she said. "But it does bring up the bigger question about care [year-round]."

Dr. Michael Zakula, a Hibbing orthodontist and president of the dental association, said dentists lose money on Medical Assistance, and no business can be expected to work at a loss. "We want to take care of these people," he said. "I look at this as a golden opportunity to open the eyes of the Legislature to see that we really need to address it."

mlerner@startribune.com

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