Groups pitch in to strengthen access to dental services

 

Volunteers hand out goods at Hope Fest Tucson. Photo courtesy of Hope Fest Tucson website.
Volunteers hand out goods at Hope Fest Tucson. Photo courtesy of Hope Fest Tucson website.

Of all the medical services you can get for free or nearly free in community clinics around the state, dental isn’t one of them.

Eighteen percent of the state’s population has no health insurance, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the urgency to provide medical services has never seemed greater.

Organizers of this year’s 22nd Annual Hope Fest hope to address that problem this Saturday at Kino Sports Complex by providing haircuts and hygiene products to as many as 20,000 Southern Arizonans, with dental care as their focus.

Percentages taken from U.S. Centers for Disease Control website. Graph by Sarah France.
Percentages taken from U.S. Centers for Disease Control website. Graph by Sarah France.

“Everyone comes for all the services, but there is definitely a high demand for dental because there is simply nowhere to go to get free dental care and even discounted dental is hard to come by,” said Lisa Chastain, founder and executive director of Hope Network Inc., which for the past seven years has hosted Hope Fest.

Forty-four percent of the state’s adults and 38 percent of the children do not have dental insurance, according to the Arizona Dental Association, which represents 70 percent of the state’s licensed dentists.

Arizona in 2009 became one of 13 states to eliminate dental coverage for Medicaid recipients. The program does offer coverage for children, but only 40 percent of the people qualified use it, said Kevin Earle, executive director of the Dental Association.

“The problem is that employers have cut back on benefits because of the recent recession,” he said.

The lack of coverage has led to Arizonans visiting emergency rooms instead of dentist offices. Emergency rooms around the state spend almost $30 million to treat dental conditions, which are treated by medical professionals instead of dentists, Earle said.

While the Arizona Dental Association is not an insurance provider, it is committed to improving access to dental care in the state. Almost 100 percent of dental conditions are preventable, and the key to good dental care is good preventative habits.

“Routinely going to the dentist is cheaper than routinely going to Starbucks,” Earle said.

Patients receive dental and medical services at Tucson Hope Fest. Photo courtesy of Hope Fest Tucson website.
Patients receive dental and medical services at Tucson Hope Fest. Photo courtesy of Hope Fest Tucson website.

Events like Saturday’s Hope fest fill in some of the gaps. The biggest statewide event is the Central Arizona Dental Society’s Mission of Mercy, held at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix Dec. 12 and 13. Organizers expect to provide dental services to more than 2,000 people using 100 portable dental units staffed by 300 dentists and an equal number of dental assistants. For more information on this event, visit www.azmom.org

Hope Fest organizers estimate Saturday’s event will provide more than $1.5 million in goods and services to the region’s needy, with the biggest draw being medical and dental services. Fifty dentists and 150 hygienists who volunteer their time will be on hand to provide free dental services to an estimated 700 patients, organizers said.

Hope Fest runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Kino Sports Complex, 2500 E. Ajo Way off Interstate 10 in Tucson. In addition to medical services, the event provides social services and other resources for underprivileged families and individuals. Volunteers also will give haircuts and distribute groceries, diapers, personal hygiene items and nearly 50,000 pounds of donated clothing to the area’s needy.

“I believe we are responsible for taking care of the hurting people in our community and seeing what we can do to be a solution to the problem,” Chastain said.

Hope Network started a version of Hope Fest in Phoenix three years ago. The Phoenix event was held in April and provided 3,500 medical procedures, 133 adult dental treatments, 2,500 bags of groceries and 1,002 haircuts. The 2015 event is scheduled for April 18.

For more information, visit the Hope Fest website at www.hopefest.com.

Sarah France writes for Arizona Sonora News, a news service produced by the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Contact her at sjfrance@email.arizona.edu

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