Valerie Burrell-Bitar said she had been to the dentist only once in the last five years.
“I went last July,” the 63-year-old Killington woman said. “I got two teeth filled and I exhausted my funds. That was that.”
After a toothache that had her drinking “a lot of Anbesol,” Burrell-Bitar said she was happy to take advantage of Free Dental Care Day on Saturday, in which about 40 dentists in the southern half of the state looked after uninsured Vermonters on a first-come, first-served basis.
“All the dental offices in the area actually give away a lot of free dental care that I don't think is recognized,” said Dr. Lance Smagalski of Oral and Facial Surgery Associates on Woodstock Avenue. “This is for people who fall between the cracks. There are people who have access to the voucher system and people who have money to pay out-of-pocket. Then there are people who fall between those categories.”
Smagalski said it was not uncommon for people without dental coverage to go six or seven years between visits. He described one patient who had been to a dentist only twice since 1977.
“Sometimes it's because they can't afford it,” he said. “Other times it's because they don't realize they have access to insurance they haven't signed up for. There are a lot of people here who could probably have Vermont coverage for some of the procedures we're doing.”
Smagalski said there was a misperception that Vermonters had poor access to dental care, but that the state actually had some of the highest access to dentistry.
By 10 a.m., office coordinator Heather Hunter said 80 to 100 patients had passed through. Those who simply needed teeth pulled were taken care of at the Woodstock Avenue practice, while those who needed restorative work were sent to other participating dentists in the city.
“I pulled in at 6:30 (a.m.) and there were five cars,” Hunter said. “By a little after 7 there were probably 40, 50 people waiting.”
Burrell-Bitar said she woke at 3 a.m. to get ready and tend to chores before trying to find a ride down to Rutland.
“I'm glad this is happening,” Burrell-Bitar said. “This is wonderful. A lot of people would be suffering without it.”