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Dentists Bridge Access To Care With Free Dental Work In Sioux City

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Katie Peikes/IPR
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The Iowa Mission of Mercy has served about 14,000 patients, who have received more than $9 million worth of dental care, over its 11 years.

Dentists from around the state gave free care to hundreds of people in Sioux City Friday. For many of the patients, it’s difficult to afford such care on a routine basis.

They turned the Tyson Events Center into a walk-in clinic providing cleanings, root canals and fillings for more than 500 insured and uninsured people. 

"Even with dental insurance, some people still find it a squeeze to get dental care." -Zachary Kouri, Iowa Mission of Mercy

Virginia Rath from Lake Park got her teeth cleaned and cavities filled. She says even with insurance, dental care is expensive and money is tight, so a free check-up helps.

“It’s a lot of money that I don’t have to spend out of my own pocket and it’s just really nice that they volunteer and do this out of the goodness of their heart,” Rath said.

The annual free dental clinic called the Iowa Mission of Mercy is “for anyone who needs it or wants it,” said Zachary Kouri, a Des Moines dentist and the co-chair of the Iowa Mission of Mercy. But finances is one of the biggest barriers to dental care that brings people in, he said.

“Even with dental insurance, some people still find it a squeeze to get dental care,” Kouri said. “We understand that. So we’re just trying to fill that gap for those families and those patients.”

Some more rural areas of the state also have fewer dentists, which gives people limited options when they’re looking for care. According to a University of Iowa map showing the distribution of dentists of all specialties in Iowa, Woodbury County has 58 dentists, while Taylor, Ringgold and Osceola counties, which are home to between 5,000 to 6,000 people each, have no dentists. 

Dickinson County, where Virginia Rath is from, has 10 dentists for 17,100 people.

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Credit Courtesy of University of Iowa and Iowa Health Professions Tracking Center, Office of Statewide Clinical Education Programs
May 2017 data of the number of dentists of all specialties per county.

The other issue is when patients on Medicaid see a dentist, the fee paid by Medicaid does not cover the cost of the work done, said Dick Hettinger, a retired dentist who practiced in Sioux City for nearly 40 years.

"Fees paid to dentists are so low, many dentists can't afford to do the work for the fee," Hettinger said.

That means many dentists have to limit the number of patients on Medicaid they see, Kouri said.

Hettinger said the annual free dental care clinic won’t resolve the issue of access to care, but it does showcase the need for lawmakers to act.

“Raising the need for dental care for underserved people far enough up the priority list is what will take care of it, or at least start to address it,” Hettinger said.

Preliminary numbers show 550 people turned out for free care on Friday, which Hettinger and Kouri said is fairly consistent from year to year.

In its 11 years, the Iowa Mission of Mercy has served about 14,000 patients, who have received more than $9 million worth of dental care.

The clinic runs through Saturday at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City. Dentists will start serving patients at 6:30 a.m.