Getting dental help

Posted: August 9, 2012 in Living
Getting dental help. by eric.louie
Getting dental help., a photo by eric.louie on Flickr.

By Eric Louie
BERKELEY-My dentist’s office called the other day to reschedule next month’s cleaning. It reminded me that I have to find someone else.

Not that there’s anything wrong, my teeth have long been cared for by a family friend whose daughters are around my age and are now taking over the business. I’ve never even had a cavity. I just don’t have insurance.

That’s brings me to the Berkeley Free Clinic on a warm, Wednesday summer evening. The clinic, in addition to the expected sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy testing, also offers services like checking colds, coughs, skin problems, minor wounds and teeth. Dental services include exams, cleanings and fillings. To get them, new clients must be picked in a lottery. Those are held each day over a few days each month when the clinic opens weekdays at 5:30 p.m.

While there is a national focus on health insurance, dental care is also an issue for many. According to a February report from the government titled “Dental Crisis in America-The Need to Expand Access,” more than a third of Americans have no dental coverage. Almost 60 percent of American kids 5 to 17 have cavities, and one in four people over 65 have lost all their teeth, with bad dental health having overall impacts like increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and poor birth. The report, from a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee, talked about how low-income and communities of color are impacted more, with a disproportionate number of dental services in the suburbs also affecting access.

I lost my work dental insurance after being laid off in November, and decided not to get it considering the $200 to $300 in out-of-pocket payments for the X-rays and cleaning I usually only went for would be cheaper than coverage. Still, having to pay for those is something I’d rather not do while still out of work. At the same time, not having coverage has made me more careful, like actually flossing everyday and brushing instead of passing out on the couch. Regular cleanings are recommended as a preventative measure.

So in the start of afternoon rush-hour traffic, I drove an hour from San Leandro for what would normally take half that, finding parking in the neighborhood just off the Telegraph Avenue shops near UC Berkeley and running up with a couple minutes to spare. Located in the basement of the Trinity United Methodist Church, a beige, obvious house of worship with large towers and arched windows, about 40 people were milling around the entrance. The doors opened and we filed in, simply filling out names and a few questions on a white slip of paper placed in a plastic fish bowl. We then waited, a mix of chairs lining the walls all taken, with some sitting on the floor and others standing. I gave my seat to an older lady.

People came from all walks of life. There was a young, punk rock girl with a shaved head, while another woman was in her light blue nurses uniform. A younger guy with a black doo-rag and white wife-beater showing off his muscled, tattooed arms was sitting. An older, fatherly-looking fellow with an equally impressive belly stood next to him, glasses on and reading one of the clinic’s many pamphlets about services. There was also a few kids, the youngest being a boy looking to be on the verge of his teens. Some made small talk, including one woman who said usually everyone in the lottery is taken.

I checked out the posters, many about HIV/AIDS prevention with others from the clinic’s past having its philosophy “Health Care for People Not Profit.” One catching my eye brining attention to syphilis had a series of what looked like nude figure drawings, the first captioned “Bill fucked Tom,” with others showing a variety of man-on-man sexual positions I never really visualized until then. It ended with a meth binge and being up all night, in more ways than one. Keep it real.

The phones rang constantly at the front desk, with workers switching between answering them and giving directions to those coming in. An immediate question was “Are you homeless?” which gives a priority for the clinic’s other services. That’s a big deal. By 6 p.m., 15 minutes after the schedule opens for the general public on weekdays, they were already full for the night and people were turned away. One of those included a girl who, loud enough for me to hear, said she needed a pregnancy test. She was homeless and got there as soon as she could from San Leandro, also thinking she could just drop in. The staff said she could come back another day, but she said she’d just go buy a drugstore test. I hope that worked out for her.

Shortly after, a last call was made for entries. A couple people shouted questions, including if the drawing was done in the open and if they shake the bowl first. The drawings are done privately, and they do shake it. About 6:20 p.m. the results were announced. Three people were picked, and I was not one. A couple people got upset, something about the process, and were starting to argue. For me, though, I was content getting some free toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss. This had been the second of three lottery days this month, with the first being Monday and the next being the following day. The staff encouraged us to try again, if not this month, the next. I ended up going back the next day, which was not as busy, with about 20 people. I wasn’t one of the two picked, but got some information on other places to check. Some do emergency work only, some are schools offering a discount and some are sliding scale, so I just got to check around. I’ll figure something out.

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