Tooth and consequences - Page 2

Americans can't afford dental care, so they're fleeing to risky clinics across the border
Photo by Pat Mazzera

I was fine for about a year, until the day I awoke with a terrible pain in my mouth. I was 19 at the time, taking classes at a community college and working at a café — barely able to pay rent, let alone find the time and money for a visit to the dentist. So I did the next best thing: simply ignored the pain, staving it off with copious amounts of ibuprofen when it got intense. The over-the-counter denial did the trick for almost two years, but I knew I would be forced to eventually bite the bullet, however softly.

And then it happened. My teeth started breaking. Not hurting, at least no more than usual, just breaking off — in huge, gray chunks.

This went on for years. By the time I was 25, four of my teeth had shattered and the rest seemed well on their way to doing the same. I adopted the diet of a five-month-old, unable to chew anything tougher than bananas or scrambled eggs. It was time to act, but I had no idea where to go. As a full-time student, getting by on financial aid, loans, and whatever I could rake in as a part-time waiter, I was nearly destitute. I'd recently transferred to San Francisco State University, but at that time, in order to purchase the student dental plan the school offered, I also had to purchase its medical plan, a combination that would have increased my monthly bills by nearly $200.

It was tempting, particularly in comparison with most employer-related or individual plans I qualified for, which could run into the thousands. But SFSU's dental plan screened out existing problems, like the trainwreck I had going on, and carried an annual cap of less than $1,000. (Unlike medical insurance plans, which feature deductibles, most dental plans have annual monetary ceilings.) So even with the plan I would still be unable to afford even a fraction of the work I needed to have done. Since my student days, SFSU has implemented a dental-only plan available to undergrads, but often the limits are too low to cover anything other than cleanings and fillings.

Thus I began my search for a pro bono dentist, figuring that with all the uninsured people living in the city there must be someone around. It quickly became clear, however, that scoring free dental is harder than finding a decent vegetarian restaurant in rural Alabama.


First, I had a glimmer of hope: a medical and dental clinic in Berkeley that had the word free in its name.

The Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC) has been offering free medical and dental care to the hard-up since 1969. It provides free HIV tests, medicine, preventative education, and more. But I needed dental work — and that was another story. As the only clinic in Northern California offering free fillings, extractions, and referrals to discount dentists, BFC is insanely popular. And since it's run by volunteers and donors, it's also chronically understaffed. Jessica Hsieh, a clinic coordinator, explained that the facility does as much as it can with limited resources. "We used to take patients on a first-come, first-served basis," she says. "But there were so many people lined up every night that our waiting room and hallway became fire hazards."

To deal with this problems, the clinic has devised a maddening selection system, which includes spotty business hours and a name-in-the-hat-style lottery. It sounded a little sketchy, but I gave it a go.

After making the 45-minute commute from my home, I arrived at the clinic at exactly 5:30 on a Monday evening. I scribbled my name on a small slip of paper, handed it to the receptionist, and took a seat in a waiting room crowded with students, broke workers, and homeless people. A nurse came out and told everyone to sit tight; the dentists were taking our names into a separate room and she'd return soon with their random choices.

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