Story and photos by Shelly Guillory
Take a tour of Donated Dental.
Matthew Boyd stood in line with 15 other people outside the locked door of Salt Lake Donated Dental Services for 45 minutes. When an employee unlocked the doors at 8:45 a.m., Matthew squeezed inside the small waiting room located inside the Sorenson Unity Center, hoping he’d be one of seven people picked for free dental services. Within five minutes, more than 25 people packed in and watched the receptionist at the front desk spin a small, gold lottery spinner.
The receptionist reached her hand into the spinner, grabbed a small, folded piece of paper and read the name. An older man smiled, walked up to the desk and provided a letter verifying he had no current income. He was given paperwork to fill out. Other people watched, some wringing their hands together, others sighing.
He would finally get — free of charge — the dental services he had put off for years because he couldn’t afford to get his teeth fixed.
“For me, this was my first time coming [to Donated Dental], and I have gotten really lucky,” Boyd said.
According to its website, Salt Lake Donated Dental Services, located at 1383 S. 900 West, works with volunteer dentists to provide free dental services for Salt Lake City’s homeless and low-income population.
Forty-five percent of SLDDS’ patients are homeless, 44 percent fall below the poverty level and 11 percent have state-funded Medicaid. Without volunteer dentists and SLDDS, these individuals would have no other access to dental care.
Executive Director Stephanie Jensen said the free services place quality preventative dental care within reach of those who would not have access to dental care.
“If you ask any agency serving the indigent, they will tell you that dental services are the most difficult services for their clients to obtain,” she said. “Untreated dental caries have long-term impacts on one’s overall health.”
According to Jensen, untreated oral infections can make diabetes difficult to manage, cause complications with heart disease and stroke and impact a person’s self-image.
Randall Kelley, a dentist who has worked for the clinic for a year and a half, said many people resort to pulling their own teeth if they can’t afford to get them treated.
“They need to do something, but they have absolutely no recourse or money,” he said. “Most places you can get a tooth pulled for cheaper than you can get it repaired. If you put off going, a cavity can become something that is potentially a root canal and is painful. You don’t have much choice. It is expensive to repair. A root canal and crowns are five times more expensive than a filling, and they wouldn’t even be able to afford a filling.”
Kelley also said the clinic tries not to extract teeth that are restorable.
“We try to get [patients] into the mode of not [pulling teeth],” he said. “A lot of people certainly have gone to places and said ‘well, just take it out.’”
He said multiple missing teeth could compromise a person’s ability to eat.
SLDDS, which opened in 1990 and is funded through grants and private donations, employs a lottery system. People who want to be eligible for free services must come to the clinic in person to place their name for the drawing held the next day. If their name is picked during the lottery, they must be present at the time of the drawing to receive services.
After his name was called, Boyd waited about an hour and received an exam, X-rays and a treatment plan. The dentist told him he needed four cavities filled, a root canal, two crowns and a cleaning — $4,660 without insurance.
Boyd was also told he needed 10 appointments to get all the dental work done. He dropped his name in the lottery for the next day, but wasn’t chosen.
“I will go back and try as many times as I can to get in,” he said. “When I find a job and get insurance, I will transfer to a different dentist.”
Jensen, SLDDS’ executive director since 2003, said that depending on the services, some patients must enter the lottery for additional appointments.
“Some services are done by appointment only ⎯ dentures, root canals, crowns, bridges, etc. …, but for services such as fillings, they would enter the drawing multiple times for multiple fillings,” she said.
Though it might seem like a lot of work, Jensen said this system works much better than the old system, which was on a first come, first served basis and meant some people camped out overnight in the cold. And a person who walks in with an obvious dental emergency will usually receive services that day.
Boyd, who will get a free cleaning on Dec. 7, said the lottery wasn’t an inconvenience. He is grateful for the opportunity to get dental work for free.
“Otherwise, I would have to wait until I found some type of insurance, which would mean I would have to get a job,” he said. “Who knows how long that could take. If all else fails, I would just have to pay for insurance on my own, which is really expensive.”
In addition to free dental services, the clinic also provides low-cost dental care for those who do not qualify for donated services. On average, these services cost 50 percent less than most dental offices.
Patients interested in low-cost services still must show proof of income, but make appointments instead of participate in the lottery. The discounted program’s profits also help support any portion of the donated services not covered by grants or donations.
Jensen said SLDDS moved inside the Sorenson Unity Center in 2006 after the landlord it rented space from on 4th West and 4th South decided not to renew the clinic’s lease. The city knew that SLDDS wanted to open a facility in the Sorenson Unity Center. SLDDS proposed to the city that if the space were built, it would bring in the program and run it. It was the right time for both parties.
Jensen said that since moving to the new facility, SLDDS saves nearly $15,000 a year in facility expenses and has expanded its low-income client base.
“Our volunteer numbers have increased as have the patient services provided,” Jensen said in an email. “We also have much more stability as the city is able to guarantee us a five-year lease with an option to renew up to 10 years at the current terms.”
“Some [dentists] come in once a month; others once a year,” she said. “We have quite a few that come in weekly. It just depends on their schedule and availability. The retired dentists usually come in more frequently.”
According to third-quarter statistics posted on SLDDS’ website, dentists donated an average of $5,628 in services each day.
And Jensen knows how important it is for everyone to receive proper dental care.
“Restoring one’s smile removes obstacles of chronic pain and restores self confidence,” she said.