Bringing Dental Relief for Appalachia’s Poorest

GRUNDY, Va. — It felt like a sustained jackhammer to the jaw. A pounding, pulsing dental pain that started as a dull ache in some rotten teeth and eventually spread to Bobby Horn’s entire mouth.

“It was probably six to seven years ago they really just started breaking off — some of them even below the gum line,” he said. “Worst pain of my life.” But like nearly half of all Americans, Bobby Horn had no dental insurance and few options.

So one night in early October, Horn drove to the yearly Remote Area Medical clinic in the small Appalachian town of Grundy. There, in an elementary school parking lot, he joined hundreds of uninsured residents of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky hoping to get some free care.

Horn had 21 of his teeth pulled. Just a drop in the bucket compared with the 900 extracted at the clinic that weekend.

In this southwest corner of Virginia, there are only three certified dentists for a population of 24,000.

As former NewsHour Correspondent Susan Dentzer reported in 2006 from a sister clinic in nearby Wise County, “a visit here offers one grim window onto the state of health care in America.” And the desperation has only gotten worse since the economic collapse.

The dental crisis is all too common these days — and not just in Appalachia.

“If you blindfold yourself and throw a dart at a map of Virginia, I guarantee you that you’d find the exact same problems there that you see in Grundy,” said Debbie Oswalt, executive Director of the Virginia Health Care Foundation. “It’s just a mess around here. And you know what? We’re not alone.”

In fact, in September the federal government identified more than 4,600 areas of the country where there simply aren’t enough dentists.

In the days ahead on the NewsHour broadcast, Health Correspondent Betty Ann Bowser will examine the situation from Virginia, New York, California, and finally, the remote villages of Alaska — where a potential solution is stirring up as much controversy as hope.

Watch Betty Ann Bowser’s first report on the dental crisis on Tuesday’s NewsHour.

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