An annual free dental clinic at six sites around the state is a shining example of how professionals can give back to their community.

It’s also something else: an alarm for a broken system.

“Free days of dental care is a warning sign that the state is not providing the resources people need,” said Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, past president of the state’s dental association and an organizer of this year’s free clinic at the University of New England. “Charity is not a health care system.”

Neither is ignoring a problem and hoping that it will go away. Untreated dental pain is one of the main reasons that people go to emergency rooms seeking help. Typically, they are given painkillers and antibiotics, and advised to go see a dentist or an oral surgeon as soon as possible.

But not all employers include dental coverage in their health insurance plans, and it’s not part of basic Medicare benefits or Medicaid coverage for adults in Maine. For many Mainers, the cost of visiting a dentist has to be weighed against paying the rent and utility bills, or buying groceries.

The wall between most health care and dental health care has long, historic roots, but makes less sense as research confirms what common sense should tell you: We need our mouths to eat, breathe and speak. Illnesses that start in the teeth and gums have implications for general health. It makes no sense to treat this one area of health care as if it’s less than essential.

Maine should take a public health approach to making oral health care more widely available.

The state already has taken two important steps, both dealing with a chronic shortage of providers.

In 2010, Maine voters approved a $5 million bond with $3.5 million targeted to help UNE to open its school of dentistry. And in 2014, the Legislature passed a law that licenses dental hygienists, who can clean teeth, to fill cavities and perform other procedures that previously could be done only by licensed dentists.

Other changes should focus on how oral health care is delivered. In addition to including dental coverage in ordinary health insurance plans and coverage for adults in the Maine-Care program, the state should look for ways to make it easier for patients to move between primary care and oral health, maybe getting their teeth cleaned in the same place they go for checkups and bloodwork.

The dentists who participated in the annual free care event should be thanked for their generosity, and for sounding the alarm.

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