Cost is the No. 1 reason why Americans don’t get regular dental care.
That's a lot more than most people can bite off. You may be retired, on a limited income, out of work, or lack dental coverage. Even with insurance, expensive services can leave you stuck with big out-of-pocket spending.
But it’s possible -- with research, patience, and luck -- to find free or low-cost dental care.
Every state has at least two dental or dental hygiene programs. Alaska has four, and New York has 160. They’re full of students who need hands-on training before they can graduate.
Most schools run clinics where students treat the public at reduced prices. You might pay half or even less for root canals, fillings, and other services, compared with what established dentists charge. Expect your appointment to take longer than usual because licensed supervisors check each step as the student works on you. The upside is that the treatment will be done by the book.
You can search the website for the Commission on Dental Accreditation for a school in your state.
Public Dental Clinics
These are taxpayer-funded clinics run by local or state health departments or by community health centers that get grants from the federal government. Many charge low, fixed prices or sliding fees based on how much you can afford. Most clinics offer exams, cleanings, X-rays, root canals, fillings, crowns, and surgical tooth extractions. Some may have emergency dentists on call.
The nonprofit group Oral Health America has a website, Toothwisdom.org, with a national directory of affordable dental programs. Search for clinics run by health departments or by federally qualified health centers.
Free Dental Clinics
The need for dental care dwarfs the supply. Many charities, faith-based groups, and professional dental organizations donate dental services. But their waitlists can be long or closed altogether. Some have income cutoffs or serve only seniors or people who have disabilities or medical conditions.
Nonprofit clinics. Some cities have dental clinics that specifically serve people with low incomes, no insurance, or who otherwise can’t afford care.
The Ben Massell Dental Clinic in Atlanta, for example, is staffed by volunteer dentists and specialists who provide a full range of services at no cost. Nashville’s Interfaith Dental Clinic accepts people with low incomes and no insurance on a first-come, first-served basis. Fees are based on your ability to pay.
You can find some of these clinics via United Way’s 211.org website. Others may be listed on state or local directories of free or safety net dental clinics.
Donated services. Some state or national charities use donated labor and materials to give free care. Dental Lifeline operates in all 50 states and accepts people 65 and over, or who have permanent disabilities or serious medical conditions. A related program matches low-income children with volunteer orthodontists for braces and other treatments.
Mission of Mercy, a program run by America’s Dentists Care Foundation, hosts free two-day dental clinics at fairgrounds, high schools, and other places in different states. Some treat adults only, and others take children, too. They usually don’t require proof of income and treat as many people in line as they can. Check the website for dates and locations of upcoming clinics.
Private dentists. Some dentists may handle a few cases a year for free. They may accept referrals from other dentists who are trying to help someone who needs lots of oral treatments but can’t afford them. If you’ve been seeing a dentist for a long time and need help, be upfront about your financial situation and ask if you qualify.
Government Dental Coverage
If you’re unemployed, or you work but earn very little, check if your family can get on Medicaid or the related Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). You may be eligible even if you’re not a parent. In most states, Medicaid charges no monthly premiums. It covers dental care in full for children up to age 19. For adults, about one-third of states offer limited dental benefits, and another third cover extensive dental treatments.