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Free Dental Care Draws Crowd

 Over two days at the Florida State Fairgrounds, volunteers organized by the Florida Dental Associationprovided more than $1 million in free services.

When volunteers got there to open the doors on the first day at 5 a.m., there were more than 800 people in line, according to association president Terry Buckenheimer. By the end of the event, volunteers served 1,660 patients.

"It was inspiring in a way because we knew we were doing something that was needed. The bad thing is we know it's needed, so it was a good and a bad feeling,” Buckenheimer said. “But to be here to serve the people and for them to say, ‘thank you, god bless you,’ it was very meaningful for everybody."

Stella Mikesell of Brandon got to the fairgrounds at about 4:30 a.m. on March 28, and she didn’t expect the line to be as long as it was.  By the afternoon, Mikesell had one tooth filled, another pulled.  Her teeth were hurting, but she didn’t have dental insurance to help pay the bill.

"I had it for three years, and then I got laid off on Jan. 6, and then they asked me to come back on Feb. 6, but my insurance had gotten canceled in the meanwhile,” Mikesell said.

Her employer offers dental insurance, but she’s still waiting for it to kick in.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, health insurance plans are required to include dental care for children as an essential health benefit. That’s not the case for adults.

Buckenheimer noted this type of event “is not cheap to run.”

“The Florida Dental Health Foundation, just the seed money alone to start this, ended up being about $108,000.That was the first ticket,”  Buckenheimer said. “Then after that, we’ve had other expenses come up. It’s probably up to a quarter of a million dollars to run this type of operation for two days.  But the nice thing about it is it’s from donations from dentists that we get that money so we can give back to patients and the people of need.”

Nearly 1,500 volunteers came from across Florida to do everything from cleanings to oral surgery. They included James Walton of Tallahassee, who has been a dentist for than 40 years.

Walton said most of the patients he sees in his practice are able to pay; at times, he takes a case without pay -- but doesn't talk about it because "otherwise, we would be inundated." Most dentists do the same, he said.

 "But here, you've got all these people who have a true need, and some financial limitations, and it's just great to be able to give back," Walton said.

Most Americans have habits that are bad for their oral health, but those can be mitigated with regular dental visits, he said.

"Folks here that are coming here don't have that opportunity and aren't able to go into a dental office on a regular basis, so things compound for them, and then they get to an emergency type situation which is what a lot of these folks are," Walton said.

Buckenheimer, the president of the Florida Dental Association, says oral health is connected to overall health, but he knows aesthetics are important, too.

"We had one gentleman that said now I can go back into the workforce because I was a sales person, and when I'm missing teeth, people just don't pay attention to me, they think I'm either stupid or they think I'm not educated and things of that sort,” Buckenheimer said.  “So this way, we're putting him back in the workforce, and that's fulfilling.”

Buckenheimer said he hopes to replicate the Tampa event in other metropolitan areas across Florida.


  • Two days
  • 1,660 patients
  • 8,017 procedures
  • $1,141,478 worth of services
  • Almost 1,500 volunteers

--Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Lottie Watts at 813-974-8705 (desk) or e-mail at For more health news, visit

Lottie Watts covers health and health policy for Health News Florida, now a part of WUSF Public Media. She also produces Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show.