Hundreds attend free dental clinic

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Christian Vidal was No. 84 and held the slip of blue paper with the number printed on it tight in his hand and to his chest.

Standing in front of Dr. Stephen Dunn’s dental office Friday morning, Vidal, 24, counted the minutes until his number was called, which would mark the end of a year-long toothache.

“But it really starting hurting three months ago,” he said, pointing to his lower left jaw.

A few months ago the tooth got infected, but without health or dental insurance, Vidal did the best he could — took antibiotics he had saved from a previous illness.

Vidal was one of about 300 people who came to Dunn’s dental office for free services on Friday.

Dunn, along with about 150 volunteers, including 20 other dentists, provided the care at his office at 7555 SW State Road 200. The event, the eighth for Dunn and his staff, is part of Dentistry From The Heart, which was started in 2001 and provides dental care at about 200 such events annually throughout the United States and Canada. The program has helped about 80,000 people since its inception.

Until November, Vidal lived in Tampa and attended the University of South Florida part-time to become a radiology technician. He was working at a Busch Gardens restaurant until he got a phone call that his father had suffered a disabling stroke. His father, a former long-haul trucker, could no longer work. Vidal said his parents are now living off charity.

“I’ve applied for every level job (in Ocala) but I haven’t found anything. I came here to help take care of my dad,” he said, turning to look at his father sitting on a bench nearby, holding a cane.

His father, Jose Vidal, held slip No. 85. He came for a cleaning.

“My mom and brother have been looking around (for free dental services) for my tooth and found this,” The younger Vidal said. “I had health insurance when I lived in Tampa, but not dental insurance. Dental insurance was too expensive.”

Asked what he would have done if it wasn’t for the free service, he replied, “There’s nothing you can do. It’s too expensive.”

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If Christian Vidal had gotten sick enough with his tooth, he likely would have ended up at a local emergency room with dozens of others who go to ERs each year with dental problems.

The number of Marion County residents who headed to hospitals and emergency rooms in 2012 for dental care easily surpassed Florida’s average, according to a Marion County Health Assessment 2015 report.

For every 1,000 Marion County residents, there were nearly 15 hospitalizations or ER visits for oral or dental treatments. Florida’s average was 8.7, according to the report.

In 2013, the rate of avoidable hospital and ER visits in Marion County because of dental problems was 13.7 per 1,000 residents. Florida’s average rate for avoidable hospital and ER visits for dental problems was 8.0, according to the study performed by WellFlorida Council.

About one in five low-income Marion County residents have access to dental care. The Florida average is about one in four, according to the report.

The report’s findings were startling enough for the Marion County Hospital District to include adult dental care as one of the five healthcare issues it funds to improve. The others are mental health, tobacco use, diabetes and obesity.

The district owns Munroe Regional Medical Center and related properties and leases them out. The non-profit district invests the money and uses some of the proceeds to fund local healthcare initiatives.

Curt Bromund, the district’s executive director, said the leading cause for lack of access to dental care in Marion County is that people simply cannot afford it. Medicaid coverage for basic dental care stops when the recipient is 21 years old.

“So what are their options?” Bromund said.

There aren’t many and a lot of people either suffer with the pain or wait for a free clinic to try and fix their problem, he said. But that can end up being a long wait.

The district chose funding adult dental projects because there was an immediate need for help, the service was easy to track and the district could see and record immediate results, Bromund said.

“And the need is just so high and it impacts so many factors in people’s lives,” he said.

People in pain often cannot work and those without insurance and extra money can ill afford to lose a day’s pay, he said.

The district gave out $300,000 this year to help fund adult dental programs. Recipients or project partners included the College of Central Florida, Florida Department of Health in Marion County, Heart of Florida and FreeD.O.M. Clinic.

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