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Dentists will hold free clinic Friday

POSTED: February 10, 2009 12:08 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Vetter examines a patient's X-ray Monday afternoon at The Gainesville Dental Group. On Friday, the practice will offer free dental care for those who cannot normally afford it.

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Even in the best of times, many people can’t afford to go to the dentist.

Now, with laid-off workers trying to scrape together enough cash for food, gas and housing, there’s little money left over for dental care.

"It’s tough right now," said Cheryl Christian, executive director of Good News Clinics in Gainesville.

The charity clinic provides free medical and dental services to the poor. Christian said demand has gone up as the recession has deepened.

"Last month, 159 patients applied to the dental clinic," she said. "In a typical month, we only have about 100 applicants. And we had 713 dental visits in January, compared to the average of about 600."

But Good News Clinics is available only to people whose income is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Many families earn more than that, but not enough to pay for their own care.

"If you need extensive dental work and you don’t fit our criteria, you have to find a dentist who will work with you on a payment plan," said Christian.

Or, if you’re lucky, a dentist who doesn’t charge anything for his services.

This Friday, one local dental practice is offering "Dentists with Heart," an early Valentine’s Day gift to anyone with a toothache and a lack of cash flow.

Gainesville Dental Group, located at 1026 Thompson Bridge Road, will provide free care to any patients who show up between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

"It’s first come, first served," said Dr. Kell Gallaher, who operates the practice with his partner, Dr. Michael Vetter. "We decided not to take appointments because we wouldn’t be able to see as many patients. We’re hoping to treat 75 to 100 people."

They’ll be bringing in a third dentist, Dr. Cindy Ratliff, to help out. "We’re normally closed on Fridays," said Gallaher. "Our staff is volunteering their time."

He said people who come in seeking care will not be asked for proof of income. "It’ll be sort of an honor system," he said. "But we assume that most people who could afford to go to a dentist would have already done so."

Gallaher said the event is aimed at people who truly need help.

"It will be a lot like a mission trip," he said. "This is basic dentistry: fillings, extractions, whatever is their most urgent need. If they’re not having any major problems but just need to have their teeth cleaned, we’ll have hygienists on hand for that."

Because of time constraints, the dentists won’t be able to perform extensive procedures such as root canals.

"If it looks too complicated to handle that day, we may just give them something for the pain, some antibiotics if necessary, and try to form a game plan for the future," Gallaher said.

Some patients treated Friday may need follow-up care next week.

"If they have a complication, we’ll be happy to see them," he said. "We’ll just have to write off the cost."

Though he can’t afford to offer free care more than one day a year, Gallaher said he definitely wants to do it again next Valentine’s Day.

"I would welcome other dentists who want to participate," he said. "This is not going to cut into anyone’s business, because these are patients who currently aren’t seeing a dentist at all."



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