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Mission of Mercy to offer free dental care

BEMIDJI — More than 2,000 people are expected to benefit from a two-day event offering free dental care to those in need.

The second annual Minnesota Mission of Mercy will be hosted June 14-15 at the Sanford Center in Bemidji, offering free dental care to children and adults who are uninsured, underinsured and unable to obtain dental treatment.

“You can’t say enough about the work that is done to help people who otherwise are unable to find access to dental care, people who have been hurting for months and months, even longer,” said local dentist Dr. John Lueth, MnMOM local chairman.

Minnesota had its first MOM event in August in Mankato. There, volunteers treated 2,062 patients, delivering more than $1.3 million worth of care, according to the Minnesota Dental Association.

Similar results are expected next month in Bemidji.

Volunteers here will provide cleanings, fillings, extractions and limited treatment for partial dental appliances.

Not offered are implants, crowns and root canals on molars, full dentures and wisdom-teeth removal.

More than 1,000 volunteers are expected, including dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, translators and lay volunteers.

“This is one more way we can make a difference in our communities and also highlight the large unmet need out there,” said Dr. Michael Flynn, a practicing dentist and president of the Minnesota Dental Association, in a Monday press release.

‘Plenty of need’

Lueth has volunteered at several MOM events, including the first MnMOM in last year and a “mega-MOM” last year in Madison, Wis., which was about twice the size of what is expected in Bemidji.

“The way that a site is chosen is based upon several things, primarily that it be in an area that has great need,” Lueth said.

In Minnesota, that frequently equates to a rural community, he noted.

Lueth, a Minnesota Dental Association trustee from the northwest district, also serves as the board president of the Northern Dental Access Center, a nonprofit that provides dental care to low-income residents enrolled in Medical Assistance and Minnesota Care.

In 2012, Northern Dental Access Center served 11,546 patients in 12,810 appointments, according to its annual report. Of those, 39 percent were children and 8 percent were senior citizens.

“We are very much aware of (the need) in this part of the state,” Lueth said.

Jeanne Edevold Larson, executive director of the Northern Dental Access Center, said the need for access to low-income dental care has not decreased at all since the dental clinic opened four and a half years ago.

“If anything, it stayed exactly the same or increased since we opened,” she said, noting 15-20 new patients are registered daily.

While the dental clinic operates on a completely different model than MnMOM, Edevold Larson said it supports its work.

“We will close that Friday so our staff has the opportunity to volunteer (with MnMOM),” she said. “We’re very supportive. There is plenty of need going around and we’re happy to welcome them … to our community.”

She also said she would be more than happy to open to the Northern Dental Access Center to any visiting MnMOM volunteers who might be looking to expanding their own outreach.

The clinic could use additional dentists willing to serve as contractors or volunteers.

Additional staff would equate to decreased wait times for patients, she noted.

“We’re all working together to meet a need,” she said. “We just have different approaches.”

‘System is broken’

In addition to helping patients address their dental needs, Lueth said MnMOM also serves as a platform to broadcast the problems facing the Minnesota dental industry.

“The system is broken,” said Lueth, who began practicing in Bemidji more than 30 years ago.

Then, private-practice dentists were reimbursed by the state to adequately cover the expenses they incurred by treating patients on public assistance.

Now, those reimbursements only cover about one-third the costs, so dentists have to limit the number of public-assistance patients they see, Lueth said.

“It’s great to have two days of free dental care for people who need it,” he said, referencing MnMOM, “but the bigger message is creating awareness around the public.”

In March, the Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report, “Medical Assistance Payment Rates for Dental Services,” which found that Minnesota’s fee-for-service rates for most dental procedures are based on what dentists charged in 1989.

A 3 percent increase was enacted in 2000, but the 2011 Legislature imposed a 22-month, 3 percent reduction in those rates.

The report, advocating for an increase to those rates, said the rates are in the lower one-third of all states and are lower than they were a decade ago.

In the current legislative session, the Legislature has been considering some incremental improvements, Lueth said, “But the bigger issue still isn’t being addressed.”

Edevold Larson said that one problem in the current system affects seniors.

For those enrolled in Minnesota Care, once they turn 65 years old, their benefits end as they transition to Medicare.

But Medicare does not provide dental benefits, so Edevold Larson said it would not surprise her to see numerous senior citizens turning to MnMOM for dental work.

“Last year’s (MnMOM) event in Mankato resulted in 2,000 patient visits, clearly showing that vulnerable people are not receiving the dental treatment they need,” Flynn said in the news release. “Until this problem is solved, the (Minnesota Dental Association) will continue to work with lawmakers on a better solution to improving the broken public system.”