In Texas, Foundation Brings Dental Care to Uninsured

A statewide program to provide free dental care to uninsured patients. However, the chairman of the foundation says the need is only growing.

Back in 2001, when the Texas Dental Association’s Smiles Foundation held its first Texas Mission of Mercy program, the organizers had no idea how many people would actually show up.

Texas Mission of Mercy (TMOM) events provide basic dental services free of charge to people without access to care. Michael L. Giesler, DDS, the chairman of the foundation, still remembers a conversation he had with fellow organizer David Nichols, DDS, en route to that first event.

“He said, ‘We’ve done a lot of work. I don’t know if there will be a lot of people here,’” Giesler recalled.

Before they could pull into the parking lot, their question was answered.

“There were car lights as far as you could see,” Giesler said.

Since then, TDA’s Smiles Foundation has been holding four events per year around the State of Texas.

A typical event features 40 dental chairs in one large room or event space, and a team of dozens of volunteer dentists, hygienists, and others.

Giesler said the need for dental care is greatest among adults, since children often qualify for dental coverage through Medicaid. The care patients receive typically is worth several hundred dollars, not to mention the money patients save by avoiding the consequences of long-term oral health neglect.

Still, Giesler’s address to the TDA House of Delegates Thursday in San Antonio also included a word of warning. While the Smiles Foundation has made a tremendous impact, the need for these types of services appears to be growing.

“As the economy has tanked and our middle class has become smaller, fewer people can access care,” he said.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the issue in 2014, they found 83% of children had seen a dentist in the past 12 months, but only 62% of adults had. For many, though not all, the lack of regular care is due to an inability to pay.

That lack of routine care often leads to much more serious consequences. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Dental Association, four million Americans went to the emergency room for dental problems between 2008 and 2010. Most of those visits could have been prevented had the patients received regular care in a dentist’s office, the authors concluded.

The benefits of prevention are already evident in the places where the Smiles Foundation has held events. Christus St. Michael Health System, in Texarkana, reported a dramatic reduction in the number of emergency room visitors seeking help with dental problems after the health system began working with the Smiles Foundation to hold TMOM events in 2011.

The Smiles Foundation relies heavily on funding from the TDA, but also raises money through fundraising, grants, and partnerships with local organizations.

However, Giesler said grant money is getting more difficult to come by because the same economic troubles that are driving up demand for free and low-cost dental care are also driving up demand for other types of services. But the pool of grant money available to groups like the Smiles Foundation isn’t increasingly accordingly.

“There’s a lot of people like us trying to access that (grant) money for poverty issues,” he said.

Even as it works to increase its fundraising, the foundation is also expanding its offerings. They’ve launched a program in which participating dentists provide total rehabilitation services for needy patients in their local communities. The costs of that program are split between the dentist and the foundation (which pays the lab bills).

In November, the Smiles Foundation will host its first TMOM event specifically designed for veterans. Giesler said he was inspired to launch a veteran-focused event after learning from a patient that many veterans, particularly those who fought in more recent wars, have difficulty accessing dental care following their service.

Those wishing to contribute to the foundation may do so here.