People waited in line all night for free dental care in the tiny plains town of Brush last weekend. The farm town 90 miles northeast of Denver hosted 260 volunteer dentists and hygenists for an annual mass clinic. Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney was there.
CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney: In the high school gym, the hardwood floor is draped with a huge white cloth. Dozens of portable dental chairs are set up in long rows. It's a hive of activity. Dentists and hygenists hunch over patients reclining under bright lights. They pull teeth, fill cavities and fit dental plates to fill gaps in peoples' smiles.
This is the fifth year Colorado Dental Association volunteers have set up for two days in a Colorado town to give away dental care to anyone who needs it.
In Brush this year, the doors opened last Friday at 6 a.m. Kim Rubalcava got there at 3:45.
Reporter: 3:45 in the morning?
Kim Rubalcava: Huh-uh, in the afternoon Thursday.
Reporter: So you spent the night in line?
Kim Rubalcava: Uh-huh, all night.
Reporter: Rubalcava is a waitress, her husband Salvador milks cows at a local dairy. Neither has health insurance, let alone dental benefits. So spending 14 hours waiting in a high school parking lot is totally worth it.
Kim Rubalcava: We haven't been to the dentist for how many years?
Salvador Rubalcava: Long time. I just pull mine (laughs).
Reporter: Pull your own (teeth)?
Salvador Rubalcava: Yeah
Kim Rubalcava: And they just come out
Salvador Rubalcava: Little by little (laughs)
Reporter: How many of your own teeth have you pulled?
Salvador Rubalcava: Oh, I don't know, a lot. I lose count. It was a lot.
Kim Rubalcava: I pulled one, two, maybe – four, I've done four, I couldn't handle the pain.
Salvador Rubalcava: Yeah, sometimes it's better to take it out, because it's so painful, you know?
Reporter: Tom Pixley of Fort Collins says he can relate. He's president of the Colorado Dental Association, and volunteering today.
Tom Pixley, president, Colorado Dental Association: I've got a pretty soft spot for indigent people that have that need, having been in that position long before dental school.
Reporter: Pixley knows that a lot of people in Colorado don't have health insurance. And that there are roughly twice as many people -40 percent- who don't have dental benefits.
Pixley: Why doesn't health insurance include dental insurance? Or why doesn't Medicaid in this state have an adult benefit to take care of that? And it all comes down to finances.
Reporter: He's right. It would cost about $1,200 a year to add dental benefits to a good family health plan like people get through their jobs.
And as far as Medicaid? Kids can use it for dental work, but adults are generally out of luck. The sweeping federal health care law President Obama signed last year expands Medicaid to more people, but but doesn't require dental coverage.
Pixley: We're pretty much off the radar, and that to me exemplifies the fact that we still don't consider the mouth a part of the body.
Reporter: Pixley is clearly frustrated that Americans aren't willing to pay for dental coverage, for themselves individually and for the poor. There's mounting evidence that an unhealthy mouth can cause serious problems elsewhere in the body. Pixley says taking care of you teeth is a great investment, but he also understands how life is for people like Jan Nansel, a carpenter from Centennial.
Jan Nansel: It's easy to put off, you have priorities, you have to live, and dentistry has been put off. It's a pain in the pocketbook.
Reporter: Nansel has never had health insurance, says he's learned to live with pain. He says his mouth hurt pretty steadily for seven or eight years before he heard about the dental association's first mass clinic in 2007.
Nansel: I went in, and about two hours later I had 12 teeth out (laughs). Twelve teeth, seven fillings.
Reporter:They did that all in one day?
Nansel: One day
Reporter: You have any idea what that would cost if you went to a regular dentist?
Nansel: About six-thousand bucks.
Reporter: Nansel's so grateful for the help he got, he's volunteered at the clinic every year since. He feels like he owes a debt of kindness and service for the help dentists gave him.
Nansel: Hell yeah. I feel like I'm paying the people back.
Reporter: At the end of two days the dental association's mass clinic in Brush treated more than 1,300 people, giving away three-quarters of a million dollars in free care. Association president Tom Pixley says he doesn't know if there's a government or policy solution to all of Colorado's unmet needs for oral health care. But, as a dentist, he knows one thing.
Pixley: The trick to all this is that it's almost all preventable. Well over 90 percent of this dental stuff is preventable.
Reporter: Some of that boils down to plain old brushing and flossing, but it takes regular trips to the dentist, too.
[Photo: Colorado Dental Association]