A smile is a symbol of happiness, but for Williamsburg residents who don’t have health or dental insurance, there may not be much to smile about.
Only about two-thirds of Hampton Roads residents — 69 percent — have gone to the dentist for a check-up in the past year, and 10 percent haven’t visited a dentist in three or four years, according to a 2017 poll commissioned by the Virginia Dental Association. An estimated 3.8 million Virginians don’t have dental insurance, according to the Virginia Health Care Foundation.
“I think what the general public tends to not realize is that your mouth can be a real window to disease in your body,” said Carol Sale, executive director of the Lackey Clinic, a free clinic in Yorktown that provides medical care for low-income residents and patients without health insurance.
Many of those who come to the Lackey Clinic can’t afford dental visits because their insurance doesn’t cover dental care, or it doesn’t provide enough coverage to make an appointment affordable, according to Sale.
Without health insurance, the cost of dental care adds up. An average check-up, with cleaning and X-rays, can run anywhere from $200 to $400, according to Dr. Timothy Johnston from Norge Dental Center.
And lack of routine dental care has consequences.
“Because people can’t afford dental care, they may not have seen a dentist in five or more years,” Sale said. “By the time they get to us, they might have to come in three to four times just to get their teeth clean enough to recognize other work needed.”
In the past year, the clinic has logged more than 2,600 dental appointments that would have cost more than $797,000 if patients had been charged, according to Sale.
One patient couldn’t have cardiac surgery until the clinic removed three of his teeth, which were decaying and posed an infection risk.
“Something seemingly simple like dental care can completely transform a person’s life,” Sale said.
Along with the clinic, dental practitioners in the Williamsburg area are helping address the need.
Norge Dental Center, for example, takes part in Dentistry from the Heart, a nonprofit initiative to provide free cleanings, extractions and fillings for patients who are 18 years old or older.
On average, 200 to 300 people take advantage of the services, which do not include surgery, according to Alyssa Stevens, the dental hygiene coordinator.
“If you’ve ever had a toothache, an abscess will cause you debilitating pain,” Stevens said. “And to get someone out of pain can make all the difference in the world.”
In addition, students in the dental hygiene program at Thomas Nelson Community College’s Historic Triangle Campus began offering free dental care in January. The free care is available to anyone, regardless of income level, according to Littles.
Program participants can get dental cleanings four times a year, which is twice the number of visits typically covered by insurance, according to LaShawn Littles, a clinical dental assistant.
Free or low-cost dental care can have other benefits, too, according to Sale.
“The social impact of not being able to smile is incredible,” Sale said.
Visit the Virginia Dental Association’s website for more about low-cost dental services.