Oklahoma Dental Program Copes With State Funding Cavity

  • Logan Layden


Paul Gilliam said his dental health declined after he lost his job and insurance coverage. Gilliam's teeth were so bad, he became shy and was embarrassed to talk, he said.

The needs of some Oklahomans are more complex in a state that ranks among the worst in oral health.

For them there’s D-Dent, an organization that coordinates hundreds of dentists to provide free dental care to the elderly, poor and uninsured, among others. And it faces an even more daunting challenge since its state funding was wiped out.

When the budget crisis hit in 2010, the State Health Department was hit hard. Funding for several programs, including Dentists for the Disabled and Elderly in Need of Treatment, was totally eliminated.

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]I lost all my coverage. I lost my job. And then it just got progressively worse…There’s a certain point folk just give up.

-Paul Gilliam on his life before being contacted by D-Dent


“We here are entirely supportive of this program,” Jana Winfee, Chief of Dental Health Services the Department of Health, said. “They have our support, just no funds.”

Since its inception 25 years ago, a large part of D-Dent’s funding came from the state. D-Dent got just more than 130-thousand dollars in 2009, which covered about a third of its operating budget, the rest coming from groups like the United Way and Delta Dental Oral Health Foundation.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Paul Gilliam's top and bottom teeth were removed and replaced with dentures.

Through D-Dent, more than 400 Oklahoma dentists donate care to those in need, and   D-Dent covers the cost of any outside lab work.

“Their stories, it’s so sad,” Barbara Lopez is D-Dent’s Assistant Director said. “And they have no other place to go. So, it gives us a good feeling to be able to help these people and say, ‘I made a difference in that one person’s life.’”

Paul Gilliam is a bashful guy and speaks softly from behind very thick glasses.

“Before D-Dent stepped in, I had pretty bad teeth,” Gilliam said.

He’s uncomfortable talking about just how bad his teeth had become, but Blanchard dentist and D-Dent participant Travis Turney remembered vividly as he looks at Gilliam’s X-rays.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Blanchard dentist Travis Turney donates time and services to the D-Dent program.

“Essentially, all his teeth were severely broken, had a lot of decay, were causing a lot of pain,” Turney said. “They were causing enough pain to where he really wasn’t able to chew and eat properly on them, so he basically wasn’t eating enough or hardly anything at all.”

And Gilliam said losing his vision started a chain reaction of misfortune in his life.

“I lost all my coverage. I lost my job. And then it just got progressively worse,” Gilliam said. “You have to try and keep up your house and then you have to try and get a ride to the grocery store, whatever. And, you know … there’s a certain point folk just give up.”

That was Paul’s life before Dr. Turney pulled his teeth and replaced them with new dentures at no cost. Now he recalls with a broad, flawless smile how his life has changed since being approached by D-Dent.

“It was pretty awesome, and from what everybody tells me, they can’t get me to quit smiling or quit talking now,” Gilliam said.

D-Dent Executive Director Shirley Harris said the organization was helping about 800 disabled, elderly and uninsured people per year before funding cuts. Now, that number is more like 600 per year.

“We have to go out and see if there are other funders out there who’ll give us some money to continue this operation, because it’s all about oral health,” Harris said. “We have a long waiting list, a very long waiting list. And that’s so hard to tell people if it’s going to be six months to three years, but it gives them hope.”

Despite long waiting lists and the total elimination of its state funding, D-Dent’s mission continues, and even recently expanded to include veterans. Ironically, D-Dent still receives its most referrals from the State Health Department.