Dental partnership puts free smiles on Montgomery Co. and DC seniors’ faces

When 64-year-old Gale Williams’ dentist would no longer take her insurance two years ago, she switched her dental care to the Mary’s Center — a community clinic located in D.C. and Montgomery County, Maryland.

“I got the basic dental care, cleanings twice a year and fillings,” Williams told WTOP.

But a few months ago, she needed a partial lower denture, which required five visits filled with X-rays, molds and a payment plan.

“At the end of the last appointment, they said ‘You know you don’t have to pay,'” Williams said, of her $800 copay. “No pay. I couldn’t believe it.”

The Delta Dental Community Care Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Delta Dental of California insurance company, picked up the tab. Dentists at the Mary’s Center and Howard University College of Dentistry completed the work. The three organizations have teamed up on a five-year pilot partnership designed to offer free or low-cost dental care to people 60 and older.

The partnership is in response to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health that discovered people 65 and older are the nation’s “most critically underserved and vulnerable” group for oral health care.

“As everyone ages, and especially seniors, they lose their benefits usually tied to employment,” said Dr. Rich Gesker, executive vice president of dental services at Mary’s Center. “And when they receive a third-party or government care dental program, the benefit package is very weak.”

In addition, Gesker said there are not enough dental care programs that cater to seniors.

Something else that may keep many seniors away from regular dental checkups is anxiety.

“We take it very slow at the first appointment,” Gesker told WTOP. “We specialize in treating those who are fearful. They see that our equipment is modern, our local anesthetics are stronger. And it’s a much more comfortable environment.”

Williams said finding Mary’s Center and the low-cost treatment program was a boon for her because her need for extensive and expensive dental treatment was starting to affect her self-esteem.

“I was very self-conscious because I take pride in my appearance,” she said. “You want to age gracefully. When you have health care, it makes a difference on your quality of life.”

Currently, the dental program is only offered at the Mary’s Center’s D.C. and Montgomery County clinics. But Gesker said patients who live in other areas can travel to their clinics for care. There also may be plans to expand the program to other areas and possibly continue it beyond the 2027 end date.

The first step for many seniors is to make an appointment, he said.

“Oral health is one part of your body that does not have to age with you,” he said. “And it’s fully reversible.”

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