Free tooth extraction clinic pulls in crowd

By Nia Tariq | 1/25/2019, 6 a.m.
It was 9 a.m. and already 140 people were in line at the Capital Area Health Network’s free dental extraction …
Dr. Christina Byerson, right, chief dental officer for the Capital Area Health Network, attends to a patient with dental assistant Courtney Satterwhite at last Friday’s free extraction clinic in Henrico County. Photo by Nia Tariq

It was 9 a.m. and already 140 people were in line at the Capital Area Health Network’s free dental extraction clinic last Friday.

The event, held at CAHN’s Glenwood Medical and Dental Center on Byron Street in Henrico County, was the first of its kind for the nonprofit health agency, which put out the word largely through social media.

By day’s end, 195 people had come through the doors seeking dental care.

“This just really shows that there is a huge need in our community,” said Dr. Christina Byerson, CAHN’s chief dental officer who organized the event.

Anyone with complaints of toothaches, chipped teeth and other conditions — save impacted wisdom teeth — were welcomed for a free consultation and X-rays. If Dr. Byerson and her team of three dentists deemed necessary, patients were given an on-the-spot extraction and a care package for the three-day recovery period ahead of them.

The dentists were helped by 15 other CAHN employees and volunteers, two of whom screened patients for Medicare or Medicaid eligibility if they lacked health insurance or dental coverage.

In Virginia, Medicare does not cover most dental services, like tooth extractions, while Medicaid covers routine dental services for children and only limited emergency services for people age 21 and older.

“Some of our patients that are here today could end up with insurance,” Dr. Byerson said, “and then they can come back and see us in our regular times as well, so we’re not just doing the extractions on them.”

Patient George Goodall said he had been carefully monitoring a cracked tooth for more than a month before learning about CAHN’s free extraction day. At 64, Mr. Goodall said he is not yet old enough for Medicare, has an income just above the threshold for Medicaid and cannot afford commercial insurance. He said learning about the free extraction day helped him cut down on medical costs until he can get the insurance he needs.

“I really wasn’t worrying about it,” Mr. Goodall said. His tooth “wasn’t giving me any problems, but I knew that it would eventually. If I had dental insurance, I wouldn’t be standing in no line.”

Fellow patient Jeannettea McClure, who has been uninsured for at least three years, agreed, noting that more free clinics like CAHN’s free extraction day, come as a benefit to the community.

“They’re giving back to us,” she said. “If they could have (more free clinics), I think a lot of people wouldn’t walk around with their mouth all hurting and jacked up.”

Dental checkups are “just as important as checkups with your other medical providers,” Dr. Byerson explained. “The signs of many conditions and diseases manifest in the mouth,” she said.

“I believe some people tend to neglect their dental needs due to fear of pain or bad news, finances, no access to care or a lack of understanding regarding dental care.”

She said she wants to see Medicaid and Medicare expanded to include more comprehensive dental coverage.

She said people who suspect they have dental issues should not simply go to the emergency room where, often, no dental specialists are available. Rather than being saddled with an expensive ER bill and a needless prescription for painkillers, people should visit a local dentist to get checked out, Dr. Byerson said.

“If we could stop that emergency room flow and have (patients) come see the dentist before it gets to that point, that would be amazing,” she said.

She also noted how some people may feel apprehensive toward dentists who do not look like them.

Leroy Dawson, a patient at the clinic, said he experienced racial profiling when he visited the office of a white dentist for a routine appointment wearing his work clothes. The dentist, Mr. Dawson said, took one look at him and questioned his ability to pay. Mr. Dawson, who had undergone preparation by an African-American dental hygienist in the office, had given the office staff his insurance card showing he had comprehensive insurance provided by his employer.

Mr. Dawson said Friday that he was happy the diverse CAHN staff was more sympathetic to his needs.

Aaron Thompson, CAHN’s chief operations officer, said he, like many people in the clinic’s waiting room Friday, knows what it feels like to be afraid of the dentist. He said he never visited a dentist before being adopted at the age of 8.

“I had dentophobia because I didn’t know what it was. That drilling can be really intimidating,” Mr. Thompson said.

“If you don’t know what it is and you don’t know what to expect, it can be scary,” he continued. “A lot of folks have been suffering for a long time.”