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Free Brunswick Dental Clinic Fills Gap Left By Inadequate Insurance Coverage

Patty Wight
Dr. Rick Elsaesser (left) and assistant Nancy Reisinger (right) work on Erin Seavy.

The need for dental care in Maine is overwhelming. According to the state Center for Disease Control, only half of Maine adults have dental insurance. That’s about the same number who have also lost at least one permanent tooth for reasons other than trauma or orthodontia.

One of the few dental clinics in the state that offer free care recently expanded to try to take a bigger bite out of the problem.

It has been a year since Erin Seavy of Woolwich says she has smiled. At least, smiled like she usually does — with her teeth showing. Ever since she got a cavity on her front tooth, and an associated dark spot, she says she has kept her lips closed like a curtain.

“Because when I smiled you could see the dark spot and it looked like food stuck in my teeth, or — I just was embarrassed about it,” she says.

And she says she was also in a lot of pain. But that’s all about to change.

Seavy visits the Oasis Dental Clinic in Brunswick recently, where Dr. Rick Elsaesser prepares her tooth for a filling.

“So what we’re going to do is clean out that little dark area,” he says.

Seavy says she stuck out the pain and embarrassment from her cavity for so long because she didn’t really have a choice. She has no insurance, so she couldn’t afford to fix it. But she’s just the kind of patient Oasis serves: uninsured adults in parts of Cumberland, Androscoggin, and Sagadahoc counties.

“Our typical patients tends to be between 25-35, they have a job, but sometimes the decision is, deal with that cavity or pay for the oil,” Elsaesser says. “We’ve described them as the working poor.”

Working poor, who often resort to emergency rooms for dental issues, he says.

“The emergency rooms are really overwhelmed with dental problems. And it’s such a challenge because in an emergency room, they will see the patient, start them on an antibiotic, possibly give them pain medications, but the problem is still there,” Elsaesser says.

For 11 years, the Oasis Dental Clinic has tried to reach uninsured patients before they go to the emergency room. It’s one of a few clinics in Maine that offer free dental care. And Anita Ruff, executive director of Oasis, which also offers free medical care, says the demand is still strong.

“Every medical call we get, we get at least four to five more for dental requests. And those are folks with insurance. Those are folks who have MaineCare. Those are folks who have Medicare,” she says.

The Oasis Dental Clinic has a three month waitlist. But Ruff hopes that wait time will shrink and that the clinic will serve more patients.

It used to operate out of borrowed space in Bath a couple evenings every month, but a recent grant allowed Oasis to build two new dental units in an expanded medical office in Brunswick and offer daytime hours. Fourteen dentists, all volunteers, keep the clinic running.

Soon after Seavy gets a white filling and flashes a toothy smile, another patient, Daisy Murray of Georgetown, slips into a dental chair.

“I’ve been a patient here for about two years now,” she says.

Murray has periodontal disease. She’s lost a few teeth, and others have fillings.

“You don’t need to go to another country to volunteer to find unbelievable need, it’s right here in our backyard,” Elsaesser says.

He says he’s frustrated that for so long and for so many people, dental coverage is either inadequate or out of reach. Even under the Affordable Care Act, he says, adult dental coverage is largely ignored.

“When you have a blatant dental infection, and you are really sick, it’s amazing that that’s not considered a health problem,” Elsaesser says.

Small clinics like Oasis, he says, can’t solve what is a nationwide issue. But they’ll do what they can one patient at a time.

“I would have no teeth,” Murray says, without Oasis’ care. “I would honestly have no teeth.”

Knowing she can save what she has left is a relief. She doesn’t have to be embarrassed, she says, to talk and maybe flash a smile.