It speaks very well of the Kansas dental community that so many dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants donate their time and skill at each Kansas Mission of Mercy, which is back in Wichita this weekend for the first time since 2006. But the huge event’s long lines, with patients willing to wait hours for help, say even more about the need for accessible dental care and better oral health in Kansas.
Coordinated by the Kansas Dental Charitable Foundation, the clinic will open at 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday at the Kansas Pavilions, on the former Kansas Coliseum site. Before it has ended each year since 2003, between 1,400 and 2,100 patients have been helped on a first-come, first-served basis. Over the decade, an estimated 21,300 patients have received more than $11 million worth of cleanings, fillings and surgeries at no charge.
Such charity care, impressive as it is, is no cure for the problem of access to regular dental care, especially the checkups and preventive services that can stave off the need for extractions and emergency surgeries.
It will help that KanCare, the state’s new managed-care delivery system for Medicaid, offers preventive dental care for adults as well as comprehensive dental services for children. It will be even better for the state’s oral health if Gov. Sam Brownback chooses to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would give another 75,000 Kansans access to preventive dental care.
There also are efforts under way to recruit more dentists for rural areas. Meanwhile, legislators are being lobbied by a large and diverse coalition of groups, including Kansas Action for Children and Americans for Prosperity, to allow licensing of registered dental practitioners. They say these new mid-level providers, hygienists trained to do permanent fillings and extractions, would be the best means to address the dental workforce shortage. The Kansas Dental Association disagrees, arguing it would endanger patients to have such providers do complex surgical procedures.
As that debate continues, Kansans should thank the dentists and others who have made the Kansas Mission of Mercy a 10-year success story.