People Wait In Line For Days To Get Into Free Dental Clinic In Phoenix

By Annika Cline
Published: Friday, December 8, 2017 - 3:00pm
Updated: Saturday, December 9, 2017 - 4:32pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
People set up tents and chairs to prepare for a long wait outside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Up to 2,000 people will fill dental chairs in the Coliseum over two days.

We live in an age when people camp out in front of stores for the latest smartphone, but it’s also an age when people stand in line for days to get dental care.

An annual event in Phoenix brings free dental care to those in need. It kicked off Friday morning.

At 2:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, the line was a few hundred people long. It snaked around a lawn on the Arizona State Fairgrounds, where a free dental clinic is being held through Saturday.

People chatted with one another. Someone cooked on a propane camping stove. An air mattress was inflated in the middle of the line. A motionless Ferris wheel peaked out over a fence.

It was clear that to be near the front of the line, you had to camp out for more than a day.

A man in a red shirt was first in line.

“I’m Michael,” he said, but he also goes by Mike Pops.

He got there Tuesday — three days before the clinic opened.

“First of all, I’m looking to get extractions and maybe some counseling with the nicotine addiction I have with cigarettes,” Mike said.

He heard you have to get there early or you’ll be turned away, because they can’t serve everyone who shows up.

“This has been the largest dental event ever held in Arizona. So we treat up to 2,000 people,” said Kevin Conroy, executive director of the Central Arizona Dental Society Foundation.

This is the sixth year they’ve put on this event, called Mission of Mercy.

“It was supposed to be for emergency care, and to treat infections and really acute dental issues,” Conroy said of the event’s initial purpose.

But he said for many, this has become their primary dental office.

In the line I found Amanda Clabaugh, who is hoping to get a dental flipper replaced that she got here last year.

“You get examined, they determine what your course of action is gonna be, like your treatment,” she said. “And then from there you just either go to extractions or the lab. It’s like visiting a bunch of different dentists in one day.”

Some people waiting here are likely on Arizona’s Medicaid system. Non-disabled adults on Medicaid can use up to $1,000 per year for emergency dental care, a new benefit as of May this year. But Conroy said it’s not enough for routine dental care.

“They go to the emergency room for dental pain,” he said. “And all they get them is amoxicillin, so that’s a waste of a visit, a waste of resources.”

So more people are coming here, one weekend every December.

Clabaugh got here last night, and is setting up her tent again to brace for a night in the low 40s.

“It’s freezing,” she said. “Just layer with a lot of clothes and a lot of blankets, and a tent really helps, it keeps the cold air off you.”

Conroy said they’ll pre-screen some people tonight, so they can at least go home and come back first thing tomorrow. About 200 hundred people from the front of the line, Jamie and Scott Allen are realizing they’ll probably have to stay here overnight to hold their spot.

“He started losing his teeth a few years ago,” Jamie said, referring to Scott. “And I just recently started losing mine.”

The couple came here last year, but they didn’t realize how early they had to come to get in — so they didn’t. And they couldn’t afford other options.

“I suffer from really bad depression and anxiety, and my mouth makes everything worse. It’s embarrassing, you know,” Jamie said.

This year, the Allens arranged child care for their daughter well in advance, and plan to wait as long as needed to get in. It’s easy to imagine all the things that could keep someone from being able to hold a spot in line — kids, work and other health issues. The Allens made it work because they don’t want to go on any longer without dental care.

“I’ve been waiting all year, like this is my Christmas,” Jamie said. “I made a joke to my dad, all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, but it’s literally — I want teeth for Christmas.”

And this year, 300 dentists and 150 hygienists — more than ever before at this event — will try to make that happen. But the staff here estimate there will likely still be more need than labor, time and supplies available.

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