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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Kansas dentists prepare for annual charity care event

Mission of Mercy in Topeka expected to serve nearly 1,000 Kansans

By Andy Marso | January 28, 2016

Kansas dentists prepare for annual charity care event
Photo by Andy Marso Topeka dentist Larre Betsworth, left, leads a group of Kansas legislators on a tour of the Mission of Mercy dental clinic during setup Thursday.

The line for free dental care started forming outside the Kansas Expocentre more than 24 hours before the doors opened.

Daniel Veach was among those waiting for the Kansas Dental Association’s Mission of Mercy to begin.

The annual two-day dental clinic wouldn’t open until about 5 a.m. Friday. But Veach and his mother left their Hutchinson home Wednesday night and arrived early Thursday at the Expocentre. They weren’t first in line, but they were close.

Photo by Andy Marso The Mission of Mercy free dental clinic draws thousands, and some arrive early to ensure they get treatment. This line had formed by midday Thursday outside the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, although the clinic won’t open until 5 a.m. Friday.

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“Part of the reason we got here so early is, we didn’t want to drive all that way for nothing,” Veach said.

Inside the Expocentre, volunteers were setting up 92 dental chairs.

John Fales, a pediatric dentist from Olathe who has volunteered at the state’s previous 14 Missions of Mercy, said the dentists will stay until late Saturday and try to care for everyone who shows up.

“We give back as much as we can,” Fales said. “It’s about people helping people.”

Kansas was the third state to offer the free dental clinics, Fales said, following Virginia and Texas. Now about half the states do.

Kevin Robertson, executive director of the Kansas Dental Association, said the association expects to provide about $1.2 million worth of dental care to about 800 or 900 patients this weekend.

More than 100 dentists and almost 1,000 volunteers are needed to pull it off.

“A lot of people get care here — good, quality care,” Topeka dentist Larre Betsworth told a group of legislators who toured the clinic during setup Thursday. “We make a lot of friends.”

Betsworth said the dental teams at the Expocentre would have the capacity to do full-mouth extractions, which was what Veach was hoping for.

Veach, 27, said he lives with near-constant mouth pain.

“Quite a bit, yeah, most of the time,” he said. “Got to watch what I eat.”

Veach works a warehouse job, but he said the hours are irregular and he has no dental coverage. His mother said she planned to use her tax refund to pay for his extractions, but when she found out they would be more than $100 per tooth, she knew she wouldn’t have enough money.

So they made a point to travel to Mission of Mercy.

Hundreds of other Kansans will do the same this weekend.

“A lot of people get care here — good, quality care. We make a lot of friends.”

- Topeka dentist Larre Betsworth, who volunteers at the Mission of Mercy free dental clinic

Fales said neglect of preventive care and the state’s methamphetamine problem contribute to the demand for Mission of Mercy among adults. Similar events in other states don’t serve children because minors have full dental coverage under Medicaid, but in Kansas the reimbursements are so low many dentists won’t take Medicaid patients.

“If you’re running a business, you’ve got to keep the lights on,” Fales said.

For years a coalition called the Kansas Dental Project has asked legislators to allow licensing of midlevel dental practitioners who would be able to provide more treatment than dental hygienists but less than dentists.

The state’s dental association has opposed the proposal, citing patient safety.

Katrina McGivern, the coalition’s policy and public affairs director, said it’s great that the people who come to Mission of Mercy get caught up on dental care, but they also need follow-up care.

With 83 percent of Kansas counties short on dental providers, midlevel “dental therapists” could help, she said.

“Our safety net clinics are strong supporters of dental therapists,” McGivern said. “They’re all excited to get them in their offices and clinics and be able to reach that underserved population.”

Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat from Lawrence who took the Mission of Mercy tour Thursday, said he was “amazed at the number of patients they serve in such a short amount of time — and that they do so with such hospitality and professionalism.”

But Wilson said the scope of the event also underscores the need for dental care in Kansas and the potential benefit of raising Medicaid reimbursement rates.

“Of course that is yet another item on a long list of opportunities that aren’t possible due to our budget crisis,” Wilson said.