Joan Curtis traveled from Rockland to Belfast Dental Care during the practice’s free dental day. She has health insurance but not dental insurance. Living on a modest income, dental insurance is just a little more than she can afford, she said.

Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry Allison Piper, who owns the clinic, said it is common for people to think of dental care as cosmetic, but it is essential to overall health. She holds the clinic each year because she knows there is need for dental care and a high rate of low-income individuals in the county who cannot afford it.

“We collectively get to determine the world that we live in and I feel like we really need to start taking care of each other,” she said.

She had to stop accepting MaineCare for a while because of the rock bottom reimbursement rates the state gives dentists — it was costing her practice more money than it was taking in to see the patients. She also has nearly $500,000 in student loan debt from medical school that she must pay.

The previous clinic owner, who was a dentist, was older and probably did not have the same debt, she said, which is why she thinks he could accept MaineCare. It was a difficult decision to stop accepting MaineCare, but she has since started accepting patients with the state’s subsidized insurance for emergencies and extractions.

She provides free fillings, extractions and cleanings during the event, which is by walk-in only on a first-come, first-served basis. She started at 7:30 a.m. Sept. 11, and saw patients until 5 p.m. First thing that morning and after lunch they were slammed with people, Practice Manager Jim Wheelock said.

Some people need extensive work done. In that event, Piper helps them with what she can and sometimes they return the next year to complete whatever work could not be done the first time, she said.

She said she wishes should could help everyone in need all the time, but even giving up one day to provide free services puts her under tens of thousands of dollars. Between practice costs, her student loan debt and supply costs, even seeing one patient for free ultimately can mean thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

The practice is still recovering from an 11-week shutdown because of the coronavirus and is still making up appointments that were canceled because of the shutdown, Wheelock said. Before closing, they were averaging 30 appointments per day.

Since reopening, practice employees have been trained on personal protective equipment and measures to prevent disease spread, he said. Dentists and hygienists wear three masks, including a fitted gel mask.

It is still slowly increasing its number of daily appointments to pre-pandemic levels, Wheelock said. Patients have responded respectfully and adhered to the practice’s new precautions, which include masks and hand-sanitizing upon entering the building and pre-screening days before and the day of appointments. Employees are screened daily, too, he said. “It may become the new normal.”

Piper urges people to call their legislators to advocate for better dental reimbursements through MaineCare, and she educates people on dental prevention, she said, “That ounce of prevention is worth thousands in care.”

For tips on how to prevent dental disease, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.