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Non-profit desperately needs dentists: Year-long waitlists for free dental care

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Posted at 6:00 AM, May 23, 2023

BALTIMORE — A non-profit organization that provides free dental care is facing a shortage of dentists, resulting in extensive wait lists that can stretch more than a year. The Maryland Foundation of Dentistry (MFD) assists Maryland adults with intellectual, physical, and/or developmental disabilities who are unable to pay for dental care.

Jacqueline Scelsi is one of the foundation’s patients.

"I had been going through cancer. First, I had lung, six months later, I had breast," Scelsi shared. The cancer treatments took a toll on her teeth, causing them to decay rapidly. "I only had about maybe five up here. And two of them whittled down very small, then they eventually fell out. So my smile was horrible. Horrible," Scelsi added.

She looked into dentures but quickly learned they were outside of her budget.

"What I was hearing was $10,000 and above," she said. Desperate for assistance, Scelsi discovered the Maryland Foundation of Dentistry through an online search.

"We specifically are focusing on coordinating pro bono care for adults that have developmental, intellectual, and/or physical disabilities," said Diane Palmer, the executive director for the Maryland Foundation of Dentistry.

For nearly 35 years, the MFD has been facilitating free dental services for individuals who do not have private insurance and cannot afford the necessary care. Palmer emphasized that the high costs associated with oral health often lead patients to neglect their dental needs, which can hinder their treatment plans for life-threatening diseases.

"A lot of times, people are prohibited from getting their treatments, as well as cancer therapies or organ transplants just because they need to get their oral care in a state of good health," Palmer noted.

Her team prioritizes patients with serious health issues, but they are overwhelmed with applications and not enough providers.

“Sometimes it can be a shorter wait, so sometimes maybe three to six months, but it could sometimes be upwards of one and a half to two years,” said Palmer.

The waiting times vary across different locations, with Howard County experiencing a few months' wait, while Baltimore City and Hagerstown patients face a wait of a year or more.

“I've been helping out for 30 years. We always have an ongoing patient in our practice,” said Dr. Denise Markoff of Federal Hill Smiles who participates in the program and serves on the foundation's Board.

She understands the challenges of accepting more patients, particularly with the backlog of patients created during the pandemic, but she said it's worth it.

“If you think about smiling with confidence without having to think twice, I think a lot of us take that for granted. That's what these people need, especially if they have special needs,” said Markoff.

She treats around one patient per year depending on the complexity of the case.

“When I take a Maryland Foundation patient, I know that they really need help. And it is very sad to see people and they feel so guilty when they walk in and we always tease this is the no guilt zone,” said Markoff.

And when she's done, they repay her with a simple gesture. A smile worth more than a thousand words.

The participating dentists in the program also receive up to 8 continuing education credits for renewing their licenses. For those interested in volunteering, click here. Patients interested in seeking treatment through the foundation can apply here.

While a new state law mandates free dental coverage for Medicaid recipients starting this year, it does not include coverage for dentures. Click here to learn more about the new law and how it’ll impact Medicaid recipients.

On June 10-11, Remote Area Medical (RAM), a nonprofit provider, will hold a free pop-up clinic for dental, vision, and medical care to those in need. RAM will be set up at The Stadium School located at 1400 Exeter Hall Ave., Baltimore, MD 21218. The clinic is in collaboration with DentMed, Inc. Services are free and no ID is required. The services will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis. The patient parking lot will open no later than 11:59 p.m. on June 9. Clinic doors open at 6 a.m. Due to time constraints, patients should be prepared to choose between dental and vision services.

For more information, to donate or to volunteer, visit www.ramusa.org or call 865-579-1530. Patients may also visit the Facebook Event for this clinic.