Tooth and consequences - Page 4

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

Indeed, he claims that almost none of the work he's gotten in Mexico has held up longer than a year or so.

This last time was the worst. "As soon as I got home," says Hatfield, "my gums started hurting really bad and bleeding off and on." When he called his clinic to complain, they denied his request for a refund and invited him back for some discounted work instead. Hatfield went back, got the work done, and thought his problems were over. But a few days later he realized they weren't. "I was sitting here eating a piece of chocolate, and all of a sudden I realized I was chewing on two of my teeth and the bridge that was connecting them. All the work they had done had just fallen out."

Hatfield has tried repeatedly to get his dentist to refund his money back, but all he gets in response are invitations to return for more work. "Now they want to just rip all my teeth out and give me a full set of implants. It's going to cost thousands of dollars on top of the $10,000 I've already spent there over the past year."

Hatfield is currently trying to get his problems fixed at a dental college in Mesa, Arizona, but he's facing steeper prices and will probably have to return to Mexico soon. "My dental and medical problems have ruined me as a person," he says. "I can't get a job because my teeth are so screwed up, and I can't think through all this pain. I just don't understand why dental work is so expensive. It's much worse than medical."

THE BIG YANK

Hatfield brings up a good point. For some reason dental issues aren't included in national or local debates about health care. Healthy San Francisco, the universal, citywide health care access program operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, doesn't cover access to dental services, which were never even considered for inclusion. When reached by the Guardian for comment on this exclusion, SFDPH spokesperson Eileen Shields stressed the difference between the city's program and regular insurance plans, saying "[Healthy San Francisco] is a health access plan, providing access to basic medical care. I mean, my health plan doesn't even include dental — does yours?"

Denti-Cal, the state dental insurance program offered as part of Medi-Cal, is an option for California residents with a low income, a social security number, and at least one child. But it obviously doesn't help the throngs who fill the waiting rooms of Western Dental. San Francisco General Hospital keeps an oral surgeon on call for extreme emergencies but if you want your janked-out teeth replaced or aren't doubled over in chronic pain, SF General can't help you.

It doesn't look like any of this is changing soon. None of the candidates running for president this year has announced a platform that specifically deals with the high cost of dental care in America. Why? Why are medical and dental issues treated as two separate entities? And why is it so hard to afford dental treatment even with insurance?

Hsieh of the BFC thinks it may have to do with the fact that dental issues aren't thought to be as life-threatening as medical issues. But if an infected tooth is left untreated, it can lead to death just as surely as unchecked pneumonia. On its Web site, the ADA acknowledges the high cost of dental insurance but privileges prevention over treatment, claiming that most dental problems are preventable. If Americans would just take care of their teeth, use their paltry insurance plans for routine checkups, and quit eating so much candy, they wouldn't have to get root canals. But I brush after meals, floss regularly, and stay away from sweets — and I've been in and out of dental clinics with major problems since I was five.

Another theory has to do with the high costs of dental school and specialized equipment, which makes sense.

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