Michigan program provides free dental care in exchange for charity work

Although it often gets overlooked in discussions of health care, dental care is an important part of staying healthy. This point was driven home to me and anybody else following health care policy issues by the tragic death of Deamonte Driver several years ago, a 12-year old who was on and off of Medicaid and didn’t get an abscessed tooth removed and died as a result of the infection. To say that bureaucratic medicine failed him is a horrific understatement.

So, dental care is important. For the most part, self-pay patients shouldn’t have too much trouble finding dentists that will treat them fairly. The same third-party payment system that dominates most other areas of the health care system is a relatively new development in dental care, so most dentists still are able to provide real prices that aren’t inflated, and payment plans are often available as well.

Still, there are plenty of people who struggle to pay for health care and finding the money for dental care can often seem like an unneeded luxury at times. In these cases, discounted or free dental care can be the difference between seeing a dentist or not. 

Fortunately there are a number of programs out there that can help. I read about one in Battle Creek, Michigan yesterday, reported in USA Today over the weekend, which allows people to exchange volunteer work at local charities for free dental care (I realize this is stretching the definition of both ‘volunteer’ and ‘free,’ but work with me on this). 

Will work for dental: a new health care model?

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — Kelly Price knows too well the pain of infected teeth and how they become so sensitive it hurts to eat or drink. He has suffered with that in the past and still has several teeth that need to be extracted, but the 51-year-old unemployed machinist can’t afford to see a dentist.

That’s why on a morning last month he was helping out at the Food Bank of South Central Michigan filling bags for weekend meals for needy children…

The hours Price volunteers inside the sprawling warehouse in “cereal city” will help him get to see a dentist for free. “I would rather pay with cash, but if this is the only way I can do it (that’s) fine because I am helping someone else and it all works out,” he said.

Price is one of the more than 4,000 adults who since 2007 have received care under the Calhoun County Dentists’ Partnership — a privately financed program that requires patients to perform some volunteer work to qualify for the free dental services. The “pay it forward” model enables low-income, uninsured patients to earn their care by helping local non-profits, including the local homeless shelter, Red Cross and Salvation Army…

Needless to say, there’s a lot to like about this program. One of the key elements to it seems to be that because the care isn’t free and patients are paying for it with their time instead of money, they tend to place a higher value on the services they receive. Two participating dentists explain it this way:

Kip Etheridge, a dentist who sees patients from the program in his office a few hours a month, said the volunteer work makes them more vested in their care and reduces the number of people who don’t show up for the program’s dental appointments.

“It’s not free care, they work for it, and that aspect is what has encouraged dentists to participate,” Etheridge said…

Charles Palumbo, a Battle Creek dentist who helped launch the program and has extracted hundreds of teeth from people who have come through it, said volunteering is important for the patients. “We want them to have a sense of dignity as opposed to an entitlement to what is happening,” he said. “We want them to feel like they are paying for services.”

These comments remind me of something that another cash-only doctor (a surgeon, if I remember correctly) once said in an interview about the charity care he provided, that everybody had to pay something or else they usually wouldn’t place enough value on the treatment provided, blowing off appointments and not adhering to instructions. He required everyone, even the poorest, to pay something, even if it was only two or three percent of the price he charged his full-pay self-pay patients.

In addition to putting in several hours of volunteer work at local charities, patients participating in the program also have to attend a 2-hour oral health class and be seen by a dental hygienist before seeing the dentist. The program is open to those without dental coverage and incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, about $23,000 for an individual in 2013.

What happens when people don’t get timely dental care was also made clear in the article:

Lacking coverage, many patients don’t seek help until the dental pain gets severe, and then they often head to hospital emergency rooms.The number of dental visits to hospital ERs doubled from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.1 million 2010, according to a recent study by the American Dental Association.

In 2006, at least three patients a day were showing up at Bronson Battle Creek Hospital complaining of dental pain, but the facility could offer them only pain pills or antibiotics and urge them to see a dentist. That’s when the hospital, local dentists and community health and business leaders conceived the volunteer model.

The partnership has cut by 70% the number of patients with dental pain showing up at the hospital ER, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs in September…

Apparently this model is spreading, with about a dozen local communities across the country starting similar programs including Springfield, Missouri and South Bend, Indiana. And the Michigan program has recently expanded to begin providing chiropractic care on a similar basis.

The whole article is well worth taking time to read, and for any self-pay patients needing access to affordable or even ‘free’ dental care, it might be worth checking around to see if there is a similar program in your area.

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16 Responses to Michigan program provides free dental care in exchange for charity work

  1. Megan Anthony says:

    My husband and I live in the metro Detroit area, and we have done everything in our power to find a dentist who will work with us in order to get my husband the dental work that he needs done. I have even gone through the yellow pages and called every dentist in our area to ask for help. What makes it so bad is that we are looking for a dentist who will do the work on him and let us pay them on a payment plan. We have some money to pay, we just don’t have money to pay all at once. We cannot find one dentist who is compassionate enough to listen sincerily to our issue and truly try to help us with our big issue. If there is any dentist who you feel would maybe be apt to help us, their information would be so greatly appreciated! I feel that with the grace of God we should be able to find someone willing to help. Any information or recommendations are so so appreciated!!

    • sean@impactpolicymanagement.com says:

      I don’t have a specific recommendation, but you might want to see if the dental school at the University of Michigan will do the work at a reduced rate. You can also look into a medical loan, there are companies that will finance care, including dental care. The Self-Pay Healthcare Market page on this web site includes links to several medical lenders. I hope one of these things works out for you!

  2. Lisa says:

    Contact me via receptionistciaradental@gmail.com. I work in a dental office in Harper Woods. We may be able to help your husband.

  3. Josh says:

    I am looking for some one who may have info or recommendation for dental help in mt.morris. I n dental help my teeth are horrible and I would lov get my smile back. I recently was injured at work have no income and no dental coverage. My wife but thats juat enough to keep our family afloat le the medical bills from being injured fighting for comp. I would love to have my smile back but no expense of taking away from my kids. So any help info or recommendation that could help would b greatly appreciated. THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS

  4. Margaret cross says:

    I think the programme is amazing . Is there any thing like this in the uk. I’m willing to do any charity work

  5. Krystal Green says:

    I’m a mother of 3 young boys who recently separated from my husband. I used to love life and smiling. Giving my all to everyone else around me, I neglected myself for many, many years. I am finally rebuilding my confidence but now I’m stuck with the fact that I’ll never smile again because I can’t afford the dental work that I need done. Medicaid doesn’t cover dental implants or root canals. The last 2 dentists I seen said it would take about $10,000 to fix my mouth. How can a person possibly afford this, especially a single mother of 3….I just wish I could smile and love life again!

  6. Colleen says:

    Hi I have just been diagnosed with periodontal disease and i am in a lot of pain. I need surgery asap. I have been told of the astranomical cost involved. Is there a periodontist in michigan that would donate services or have low income payment plans? Is there anyone who could perform the LANAP procedure at low costs?

  7. Ross taylor says:

    A very fine blog regarding the dental care aspects.

  8. Michael Lee Branham says:

    I can not afford insurance right now but need immediate care. Please tell me how I can participate in the work exchange for free dental program.

  9. susan says:

    My husband had a burst aneurysm / stroke two years ago at 41 years of age, and also has been disabled for 12 years on social security disbaility. We have been married 24 years. He had to learn to walk talk eat pretty much everything all over again. Suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and other disorders. He has lost all of his teeth, which is causing complications from the stroke. As well as bad infections, has not been able to eat solid foods for two years can only drink nutrition drinks. He’s very weak. He has no other insurance other than medicare. We have been looking for over two years to get help for his teeth. If anyone knows of any help out there, please let us know. Thank you and God bless!

  10. John Rice says:

    I have been disabled for 8 years, have had to fight hard to keep our house out of foreclosure, with disability came no dental care for my wife and I, I have no idea what to do, I have an abscessed tooth four broken off crowns and 2 held on with supper glue. I don’t know how this program works, I have had 3 spinal fusion surgeries and about 17 hernias repaired and find myself with a 10 pound weight limit for the rest of my life, what can I do for my dental health care dental insurance will deplete our grocery funds or cost us our home. I need help what can I do and were can I turn for help?

  11. Lora Ziebro says:

    Hi, my brother was the victim of a violent crime in Michigan last month. During the crime, the criminals kicked in his mouth and shattered his teeth. He needs a lot of dental work but doesn’t have any money or insurance. Is there anywhere he can get charitable dental work?

    • Sean Parnell says:

      You might try the program described here, or if there’s a dental school in MI they might do it to give students some practice.

  12. Cathy Brookshire says:

    I too have no dental coverage and am in great need of dental care. My teeth are literally falling out. I live up north in the Cadillac area and its very hard to find help. We dont seem to get the needed programs up here in the north like they have in the big cities. I work but husband does not. Can make payments but that would have be low as i’m still paying for my heart attack and still have every day household bills to pay.
    I will check the links that Sean has provided.
    Thank you for the information

  13. Vickie says:

    I am a 59 yr old female with multiple medical problems from the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. I am in desperate need of a dentist/Oral surgeon to give me dental implants and I can pay on payments. I had a wonderful dentist in IA before moving to MI that let me do just that. And I always paid him on time every month until I was completely paid up. I can’t wear dentures due to the bone structure of my gums but I need some teeth so I can chew as mine keep falling out eve though I take great care of them. He said it’s my medicine that is making my teeth fall out. I had crowns done that I paid for and they just fell out too. I hope someone out there sees this and can give me some recommendations in where to get some help. I need it badly and I’m not good at asking for it as I’m usually the one providing it! Thank you whomever you might be.

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