Woman without insurance seeks solution to tooth pain

Woman without insurance seeks solution to tooth pain »Play Video
Charlotte West describes her tooth pain Tuesday, July 3, 2012, in Bakersfield.
Editor's note: Western Dental brought a tooth extraction specialist to one of its Bakersfield locations a few days after our report. Charlotte West said the work was done on Friday, July 6. She said that saved her several days of continued pain, and the appointment went fine.

A Western Dental spokeswoman told Eyewitness News it took some time to get the necessary clearance from the patient before they could respond for our report.

The original report is below.

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — The pain is almost unbearable, and a Bakersfield woman is stuck waiting weeks for the care she needs. Charlotte West said a tooth must be extracted, but she has no dental insurance.

Experts say some clinics do provide low-cost dental care, but a check of these local providers shows they don't have the services West needs now.

"It started with an ear ache," West told Eyewitness News on Tuesday. "This side of my jaw was hurting and the tooth." It was the right side of her face, and she went to the Kaiser Permanente urgent care, where doctors gave her some antibiotics for infection, but said the tooth needs to go.

West, 60, said she has medical coverage with Kaiser through her Social Security disability, but it doesn't include dental coverage. She and her husband are both disabled and on a fixed income.

Faced with the bad tooth, West said she went to Western Dental because they will accept payments. Her first appointment there was on June 22, West said.

But, the dentist couldn't get the tooth out.

"He says, you're going to have to go to an oral surgeon," West said. And, she said the earliest she could see the Western Dental oral surgeon was July 9. She was told the surgeon is available just once a month at each office.

"This is not acceptable," West said, relating what she had told dental office staff. "I came to you, thinking I could get this done in a couple days. Here it's going to be almost a month."

"It's really tough when you're uninsured or under-insured," Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Steve Schilling said. His organization has six dental clinics and a mobile dental care unit. He's convinced dental care access is a big problem.

"There's a quarter of a million people in Kern County that are uninsured medically," Schilling said. "I'm guessing that number is much larger for those that are uninsured dentally."

Clinica provides dental care for low-income patients on a sliding scale. However, his clinics couldn't have helped West any quicker, they also don't have oral surgeons on staff.

West tried to tough it out after the first visit to Western Dental, but said a couple days later the pain was so bad she went to a hospital emergency room. She was told there was no infection, and given a prescription for pain.

She tried again to have the tooth pulled at Western, and went back to the dentist there.

"He's got his arm totally wrapped around my head, had a hold of my jaw," West described. "Pliers in his hand, forceps on my jaw, pushing on the tooth and tried to pull it. Couldn't do it."

Eyewitness News contacted the Western Dental offices to ask more about their services, but there's been no response yet.

West said she can't drive because she's on the pain medication. And she still can't eat because of the pain.

"Just trying to open my mouth enough to put something in there to eat, other than through a straw, there's shooting pain up my jaw."

West is convinced there should be more and better dental services for low-income patients.

"Maybe there is a low-cost dental insurance package," Schilling said. "I'm not familiar with very many of them." But, he's also concerned at the lack of options.

Eyewitness News also contacted the California Dental Association. Spokeswoman Alicia Malaby said there are dental safety nets, such as Federally Qualified Health Centers.

That includes clinics like the Shafter Community Medical and Dental Center. A spokeswoman there said dental care is provided to low-income adults on a sliding-scale basis. But, they also don't have oral surgeons on staff. The spokeswoman said the organization does have dental clinics also in Taft, Delano, Tehachapi, Ridgecrest, and two in the Bakersfield area.

The Dental Association spokeswoman also stressed dental care.

"It is important to remember that dental disease is actually preventable," Malaby said in an email statement. "Good home care, healthy eating and regular preventative visits to the dentist are the best option for limiting expenses and avoiding the need for more costly care later."

But, West now has an immediate need for care and pain relief.

"This is happening to people, and it shouldn't be," she said.

Schilling agreed. He's upset that Medi-Cal no longer provides most dental care for adults, though West said she's not qualified for that program. Schilling also stressed dental care is important for overall health. He said he worries that is being ignored.

"We're going to have to do a better job as a people figuring out how to get dental services more affordably available to the population that we have in our valley," Schilling said.

West would agree. At this point, it looks like she'll have to wait another seven painful days before the bad tooth can finally be pulled.