Dental clinic struggles to help underserved patients

(Lansing, MI) – An estimated 50,000 people in Ingham County do not have dental insurance, and most of them cannot afford to pay for dental care. Health officials say those numbers are rising, as more and more people lose their jobs.

The Carefree Dental Clinic in south Lansing offers free or low-cost dental care to those who qualify.

But the demand is much greater than the clinic can handle.

The Carefree Dental Clinic looks like any dentist's office. It's quiet and comfortable, with lots of shiny new equipment. The difference is that the dentists, hygienists and others are volunteers...and many of the patients have never had regular dental care.

Dr. Tim Zalinsky is fitting a denture for Mark NIms. Nims works on a farm in Leslie.

"My bottom teeth were really bad so I told my doctor in Mason and he recommended Dr. Z," says Nims. "So I come up here and Dr. Z done a great job for me."

Other patients are waiting to see Dr. Zalinsky. James Myall, a dairy farmer from Mason, waited too long to have his wisdom teeth removed. Now they're impacted.

And there's another patient, Craig Wray of Lansing. A couple of weeks ago, he bit into an apple and has been in extreme pain ever since.

"I'm kind of miserable," Wray bemoans. "There's no smile in my face. I mean I do smile, I have to associate with people all day at work."

Wray is missing all of his upper teeth. Dr. Zalinsky says he'll pull what's left of his lower teeth and fit him for dentures. Zalinsky says he does a lot of extractions at the clinic.

"Sometimes you and I, we have a sore tooth or a broken tooth and we think, okay, that will be better, so you wait awhile," Zalinsky explains. "Now, if you have the money you may go get it fixed. But if you don't have the money, you don't know where to go, you don't get it fixed. And you wait until it gets so awfully bad that you're finally in the clinic here having them removed because they cannot be saved at this point."

The patients here don't have the money and don't have dental insurance. They are the working poor, the unemployed and the homeless. Many are Medicaid patients who can't get care anywhere else. That's because many dentists have stopped accepting Medicaid patients, because sometimes they don't get fully reimbursed for their work.

"Oh, the demand is unbelievable," says Paula Bates. She's been running the clinic since it opened in August 2007.

"People really do not understand the demand. It's really severe. I probably turn away more than 200 people a week. And my phone rings off the hook. And we have a waiting list that has over 800 names on it. And some of those names have been on it a year and a half to two years."

Bates says the roster of volunteer dentists has as many gaps as her patients' mouths. Some weeks the clinic is open only 20 hours. Bates says she could serve many more patients if they had more dentists.

"Really, we need dentists most of all," she says. "We have a lot of hygienists who come in, I can keep the clinic staffed with hygienists. But dentists are where the need really lies."

There's no charge for the extractions and the clinic gives Mark Nims his dentures at cost; about $200 for a lower denture. That's much less than the cost would be at a private dental office.

"Now watch Mark without teeth," Zalinsky demonstrates. "Mark ages about 10 to 15 years. We not only give the teeth back. We also give that form to the face back."

And that face is smiling now. Mark Nims says he never imagined he'd get his teeth fixed so soon.

"It's been just two months and I've got my teeth now. It's a real good feeling," Nims says. (Millich: "You said you were going to go eat steak, but obviously...") "Obviously, I can't. But down the road. Yeah, I love my steak and potatoes."

Dr. Zalinsky has finished his shift. He's heading back to his own practice in Mason. The Carefree clinic will be closed this afternoon. But not by choice. There are many patients who want appointments...but there's no volunteer dentist.