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Free clinic to offer dental care this weekend Downtown

People who don’t have access to regular dental care often end up in a hospital emergency department when the issue becomes too painful to ignore.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
People who don’t have access to regular dental care often end up in a hospital emergency department when the issue becomes too painful to ignore.

A free clinic will provide services to hundreds of people who need teeth cleanings and other dental care on Friday and Saturday.

The Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh event is one of a few free dental clinics in the country that happens in the same location every year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the clinic last year, they said lack of access to quality dental care is a persistent issue.

“Without the care that they need, small dental problems become bigger dental problems,” said Dr. Daniel W. Pituch, the chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery at UPMC Mercy and UPMC Shadyside.

People who don’t have access to regular dental care often end up in a hospital emergency department when their problem becomes too painful to ignore.

“They’re taken out of pain, they’re temporarily treated, but the emergency department and the hospital is not really set up or geared to provide definitive dental care,” Pituch said. “And so these patients might get out of trouble for the moment, but without access to definitive dental care, they’re at risk of that happening again. And we do see that.”

In one year, Pituch said, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside handled more than 3,000 dental-related emergency department visits from patients who have no other ways to access dental care. Some parts of Pennsylvania — particularly rural areas — havefewer dentists and more barriers to accessing dental care.

Some organizations, such as Mission of Mercy (a separate nonprofit organization) and MOM-n-PA cross the state to offer free dental care in places where such care otherwise may be difficult for people to access. They reach individual cities once every few years. But Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh holds an event in Pittsburgh every year.

Organizers said the need for the clinic need has increased since they began the program in 2017. In their first year, they served 885 patients during the course of two days. In 2019, that number rose to 1,302.

Many people who attend the clinic don’t have dental insurance, said Keith Young, the chairman of A Call to Care, which sponsors Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh. Others have copays that are too high for them to afford, he added.

“It’s a lot of folks that are on tight incomes and really have to make a decision sometimes between ‘Do I feed the kids, or do I go get my teeth done?’”

Young said the pandemic exacerbated access and affordability issues for many people. According to onereport from the nonprofit research and advocacy group CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, more than six million Americans lost their dental insurance during the pandemic. Others delayed care during the past18 months.

Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh officials said they suspect that the number of patients who seek services this year could surpass the totals from previous years. More than 1,300 volunteer dentists, clinicians, nurses and others have signed up to work at the event.

“Teeth are part of overall health,” Pituch said. “It’s really not about aesthetics or beautiful smiles anymore. It’s about overall health and making sure that you don’t have overall sources of contamination of your blood through bad teeth, periodontal disease and places where bacteria can get into deeper tissues.”

If left untreated, some bacteria in the mouth can trigger endocarditis and other issues in some people, he noted.

Young said the psychological benefits of dental treatment are just as important for patients.

“We’ve actually had numerous patients tell us that when they get their teeth fixed, they have better confidence,” he said. “There’s the physical side, but there’s also that personal side.”

The clinic offers dental exams, cleanings, restorative fillings, extractions, some root canal treatments and other dental care to people age 2 and older, all at no charge. There are no eligibility requirements or income evaluations. Patients are cared for on a first-come, first-served basis.

All patients are required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or must take a COVID-19 rapid test at the event, which takes place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown; doors open at 6 a.m. both days. Find more informationhere.

Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at