Larry Wojenski of Brattleboro was one of more than 300 Vermonters to have their teeth repaired - for free - two weeks ago. He lost his job in January 2010 after the restaurant where he worked burned down. After an exhausting job search during the deepest recession since the Great Depression, he found work in November. Dental care had to wait, however, until he could get his credit card debt in check.
"I was unable to get to the dentist to take care of myself... I didn't have the money," the 52-year-old Vermonter told the Vermont Bernie Buzz. "Even though your teeth are a priority, you have to pay utilities and have a roof over your head. Surviving is more important than your teeth." Thanks to Free Adult Dental Care Day, which was organized primarily by Vermont dentists, he had nearly a thousand dollars worth of dental work done at no cost.
"The overwhelming demand by Vermonters for dental service is proof that people are struggling to pay for basic expenses -- fuel, housing, and groceries -- and can't afford the added expense of taking care of their teeth," Sen. Bernie Sanders said. "At a time when so many Vermonters are struggling, it's not unusual to hear stories like Larry's. We must continue to fight to ensure dental care is available for all people, regardless of income or ability to pay."
During the Free Adult Dental Care Day, which was held in five locations throughout Bennington, Rutland, and Windham Counties, Wojenski had a tooth repaired and crown put on at no cost. "That $700 to $1,000 probably takes me two months to save after working full time," he said.
Wojenski's story is not unusual. Aside from not having dental insurance, many of the Vermonters who took advantage of free dental care have been laid off or simply could not afford to take care of their teeth, according to anonymous surveys collected by organizers. Many people had dental insurance for their children, but not for themselves.
Robert Ruhl of Wilmington, Vt., is one of the dentists who help create the free dental care day in 2008. "The purpose of this, quite frankly, is to try to get those folks that have fallen through the proverbial cracks," said Ruhl, noting many Vermonters who are employed still need help obtaining dental care.
"It's those people in the middle. People just trying to make it," Ruhl said. "Without the benefit of dental insurance, they have so many tugs on their income it's hard to fit dental care into the basket that they have to fill every day."
Expanding the reach of community health centers is one solution. The number of Vermonters receiving dental care through the federally qualified health care centers has grown to roughly 20,000 people, said Sanders, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health Care. "One of the areas that I have long-worried about is dental access in Vermont," the senator said. "While we still have a long way to go, there is no question that we are making real progress."
In 2002, for example, there was just one community health center dental practice in Vermont. The Island Pond location served about 1,000 Vermonters. This year, an eighth dental practice, located at the community health center in Morrisville, further broadened the reach of the dental network that has grown to more than 19,000 Vermonters. A ninth dental practice will be opening soon in Ludlow. Aside from the initial Island Pond location, dental services are available in the health centers in Hardwick, Plainfield, Richford, Rutland, and the two sites in Burlington.
Sanders emphasized the successes in bringing dental services into Vermont's schools. "In 2002, there was one school-based dental program in Bennington serving about 150 students," he said. "Today, Vermont has four school-based dental programs and a dental van program that serve more than 2,200 students."
Free Adult Dental Care Day was held on May 21 and is estimated to have provided more than $250,000 worth of free dental care to Vermonters. Next year, organizers hope to offer free dental services in more parts of Vermont.