Registered dental hygienist Nancy Watson, who works at area dental clinics in central Aroostook County, tends to a patient at the St. Apollonia Dental Clinic in Presque Isle on Nov. 2, 2018, during the statewide day of free care organized by the Maine Dental Association. Credit: Anthony Brino

On Jan. 23, I flashed my toothiest smile at Gov. Janet Mills. As a member of the Southern Maine Workers Center, I rallied with coalition partners at the State House to support LD 1955. If passed, LD 1955 will expand MaineCare to include comprehensive dental care for adults.

Access to dental care is essential to good health. People who do not receive regular dental care run a high risk of developing gum disease, tooth decay and infection — problems both painful, and potentially deadly. Researchers demonstrate increasing evidence of links between poor oral health and serious medical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and diseases of pregnancy. At the center, we affirm that health care is a human right. Clearly, dental care is an essential part of health care.

In addition to volunteering at the center, I work both as a nurse at Maine Medical Center in Portland, and I pastor at the Wales Presbyterian Church. I am also a single parent of four children. I am so grateful for the ability to work. I love what I do and I am deeply aware of the sense of well-being that accompanies financial stability. My awareness stems from the years I stumbled through financial insecurity with a pervasive feeling of dread and shame.

After a divorce, I moved into a new town, settled my children into new schools, and gave up my regular work hours for a per diem job. I believed I could go a few months without insurance while I mapped out a work/home balance less stressful for my children. Weeks later, I found a lump in my breast. I called Planned Parenthood, unsure if a family planning clinic would be able to help me. Yet the voice on the phone urged me to come in. No insurance? No problem.

Ironically, having given up scheduled hours at the hospital was a stroke of luck. With work-related insurance, I would not have been eligible to receive MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Instead, I would have been saddled with a debt so overwhelming, I doubt I would still be living in our modest home in Freeport. I shudder to imagine the havoc that financial crisis would have wreaked on my family.

Yet receiving MaineCare provided stressors in its own right. Each time my benefit was up for review, I feared that, because I chose to work as much as I could, I would be deemed ineligible for MaineCare. Without it, no matter how much I worked, I could never have afforded the medical and mental health services we needed.

Those were hard, lean years, filled with fear: fear of illness, fear for my children’s well-being and fear of financial disaster. I know firsthand how broken our health care system is. I know firsthand that those of us who access MaineCare cannot afford the cost of preventative, routine dental care. This is a devastating gap in our system that leaves people in pain, and at risk of deadly preventable diseases. For adults on MaineCare, dental crises are the No. 1 reason we visit the ER.

The cost of foregoing dental care is not only measurable in increased disease risk, but also in social costs. While wealthy Americans pour vast sums into cosmetic dentistry, poor people without dental care suffer the stigma of having brown, broken, rotting or missing teeth. The chronic pain of tooth decay causes poor sleep, depression and inability to work. The visual stigma of poor dental health closes doors to employment, and acts as a social barrier, leading to isolation and low self-esteem.

Adding dental care to adult MaineCare will not address all the problems in our health care delivery system. However, passing LD 1955 would move us toward ensuring all Mainers have the health care they deserve. To those individuals who would get to visit a dentist and receive both preventative and restorative dental care, it could be a life-changing, life-saving benefit. Now that’s something to smile about.

Mia Dyson of Freeport is a member of the Southern Maine Workers Center. She works as a nurse and pastor.