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Dental care event that has helped thousands of low-income Alaskans is struggling

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published April 6, 2016

An event that provides free dental services for Alaskans who can't otherwise afford them is having a hard time raising money, putting its future in doubt.

Alaska Mission of Mercy will hold its third annual event April 29 and 30. But because of funding difficulties, there's also a chance this year might be its last.

Julie Robinson and David Nielson of Anchorage are the husband-and-wife dentist team who take on the bulk of the planning and organization around Alaska Mission of Mercy in Anchorage, which has provided some $2 million worth of dental care to nearly 2,500 Alaskans in its two years of existence.

The couple put on the first event in Alaska in 2014 and helped other dentists organize a smaller event in Fairbanks last year, but a lack of big donations and wavering interest from dentists has them worried.

"I always thought the second time around (in Anchorage) would be easy," said Robinson. "The first time we did it we were done with fundraising well in advance, but this time we're still doing it" closer to the day of the event.

"It has been a bit of a struggle this year," Nielson said.

The state of Alaska gave Mission of Mercy $25,000 in its inaugural year, for example, but didn't give any money this time around. They also haven't received as much help from the mayor's office as they did two years ago.

The event involves recruiting more than 200 dentists to volunteer, as well as nurses, hygienists, dental office staff, pharmacists and other community volunteers. Renting out the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, and bringing equipment in from out of state, isn't cheap. The whole event costs more than $230,000 -- in both cash and in-kind donations -- to pull off.

Much of the money this year is coming from smaller donations they've scraped together, Robinson said, which is tough for such a massive affair.

"We're getting it from local businesses and friends," she said. "Some people are giving $20 a month for four months in a row on PayPal because that's what they can afford."

Providence Health & Services Alaska is the largest donor this year, with $50,000.

In addition to difficulty finding enough money, the couple is also having a hard time getting dentists to volunteer. Nielson said one reason it's tough to organize in Anchorage is because the city is so small compared to others that have hosted Mission of Mercy (dentists have organized these events in 27 states).

He said that in Portland, Oregon, 200 volunteer dentists would be about 8 percent of the state's dentists. In Alaska, that number would be about 40 percent of the licensed dentists, Nielson said.

"For some reason it's a little tougher to get them to volunteer," he said. "Part of it is because we haven't had the time to go out and recruit dentists."

So far this year, about 160 dentists have volunteered. There are also fewer community volunteers aside from dentists this year -- about 915 people have signed up so far, and Robinson and Nielson are hoping for a few hundred more. Those volunteers help monitor the line of people waiting for care, organize paperwork, check patients in and out, and do other work assisting patients.

Alaska Mission of Mercy is supported in part by the Alaska Dental Society. Robinson and Nielson, who co-chair the event, decided to organize it after selling their Anchorage dental practice in 2012.

Both have other part-time jobs. Robinson is a lieutenant colonel with the Alaska Air National Guard, where she is chief of dental services, and Nielson works at the Southcentral Foundation. They also fill in for other dentists.

The event quickly proved a success. Some patients lined up in downtown Anchorage nearly a day early in 2014 to make sure they had a chance to get treated.

Nielson said just a handful of the 1,600 or so patients Alaska Mission of Mercy helped that year were on Medicaid.

"So this truly does go to the people that have a hard time affording even the basic stuff," he said.

Patients can get everything from cleanings and X-rays to root canals, tooth extractions and oral cancer screenings.

Although Alaska Mission of Mercy has been hugely popular, Nielson and Robinson say that in the future it will happen every two years, the next being in 2018, possibly in Fairbanks. But there's also a chance it might go away entirely if other people aren't interested in chairing the event.

"That's what we're thinking," Robinson said. "It's such an exciting event. But … somebody in Fairbanks would have to say, 'Yeah, I want to do it.' If Wasilla wanted to do it, which I think would be great, we'd help. This is just such a beast to put on."

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