When you are down on your luck in Louisiana, dental care can be hard to come by. Medicare doesn’t cover it for adults, so many low-income people have to rely on volunteer dentists and special clinics that often have long waitlists. In Covington, the Food Bank has made helping these people a priority.
The Food Bank provides food for those in need, but they also have a thrift store, an emergency assistance center and a dental clinic. They call these their “core ministries,” and hope the services target the community’s primary needs.
As dental clinic manager Karen McCarthy explained, there is a great need for affordable dental care.
"A lot of people go their whole lives without either going to a dentist or infrequently," she says. "They take care of their kids, they take care of everybody else. So that’s our goal, to really reach the adult community. Children are covered under Medicaid or Medicare through the state so they have that opportunity, but a lot of adults don’t.”
Darcy Philips recently visited the clinic for a routine cleaning. She has been going to the clinic for several years, trying to catch up on much-needed dental work after years without care.
She said it’s changed her life. “I can eat again; I couldn’t eat for a long time because my teeth were so loose and were falling out and bad. It just feels better, I don’t have the pain of the teeth, I don’t have the pain of the gums. It’s all gone, because they were able to help me at a cheap price,” said Philips.
The goal of the clinic is to provide primary dental services to those who cannot afford them, including the low-income and working poor. At a regular dental practice an extraction can cost around $250, while the Covington Food Bank’s clinic offers the same services at just a fraction of the cost. Patients usually pay around a third of what the services would cost elsewhere and there is a huge need — the schedule is often booked out for a month or more.
McCarthy says, unfortunately, the most common procedure is extractions, because many people wait so long to get help. She said, “We have a lot of women in their forties and fifties, particularly single parents, who have spent their whole lives bringing up their kids, and they’re finally at a point in their life when they can address their own dental issues. Unfortunately, we do get a very high percentage of patients who are beyond restorative.”
Executive director of the Covington Food Bank, Terri Turner-Marse, explained that dental care often takes the backseat to primary medical care. But she said access to dental care is about more than just health.
“I think it helps people get jobs, quite frankly, because if you think about when a person goes for an interview, if they have a gaping hole in their mouth or deteriorating teeth the first impression it gives is poor,” said Turner-Marse.
She explained that her favorite day is, “Bridge day, when people are literally getting their new smiles. Tears abound around here when that happens because they’ve never had that before.”
The clinic had about 900 patients in 2014, and Turner-Marse hopes to be able to take on more clients in the future, but said they need more dentists to volunteer.
Dr. Claude D’Antonio volunteers once a week. He used to have his own practice in Bogalusa, but retired a few years ago and said he gets a lot out of volunteering at the dental clinic in Covington.
“These patients that have never really seen the care that they deserve, they’re just not used to the care. You can see it in their eyes and their tone of voice. They’re constantly thanking us — it’s just a fantastic feeling," he says. "When I walk out of the door in the afternoon here, it’s a recharge, a battery recharge. I feel so good, spiritually. It’s just a great feeling."
McCarthy hopes the clinic can grow to serve more people in the future. She said they have a shared goal: “Just treating as many people as possible — fixing one smile at a time in this community.”
Northshore Focus is made possible with the support of the Northshore Community Foundation.