The Berkeley Free Clinic is located in a church’s basement at the corner of Durant and Dana, near the university campus. The dental section sits at the end of the waiting area, equipped with an x-ray machine and two dental chairs. The clinic is run by volunteers, including licensed dentists and university students, and visited by a mix of low-income, uninsured patients consisting of the homeless, documented or undocumented immigrants, international researchers hired but not insured by the university, teachers, artists, those who are laid off or between jobs, and many others who are deprived of access to dental care otherwise.
While universal health care is still nothing but a dream in the US, the Berkeley Free Clinic can provide you with a glimpse of it. As indicated in the name of the clinic, you don’t have to pay for treatment here. No form of identification is required. Despite a limited capacity of the clinic and high demands from all around the Bay Area, nobody is turned away. And yes, you can be a patient here even if you don’t have legal status in this country, and it’s OK if you don’t speak English (the volunteers at the clinic are truly multilingual, and they will be posting flyers in Spanish, Chinese, and other languages all around the Bay Area).
As a volunteer dentist at the Berkeley Free Clinic, I always appreciate the chance to do what’s the best for my patients without considering their ability to pay, because neither the clinic nor the dentists are reimbursed by the type or amount of treatment we provide. In some other community clinics where I used to work, the tooth-colored, mercury-free “composite” fillings are considered “cosmetic” and not covered by many health programs, and dentists are forced to do the old-fashioned silver-mercury fillings, particularly for low-income, disadvantaged patients. In contrast, at the Berkeley Free Clinic I only need to discuss the type of treatment with my patients. The vast majority of my patients prefer composite fillings. I do, too, because composite fillings not only require less drilling but also spare the environment further mercury pollution. It is amazing that, broke as the clinic is, we can always afford composite materials.
Many patients come to the clinic with an emergency – an acute abscess or a long-standing problem that has finally become unbearable. Some others show up because they become wary about the long treatment plans or expensive crown and bridge work prescribed by their private dentists and decide to seek some unbiased opinions – or at least those unrelated to money. Many more have become regular patients at the clinic, coming in for exams and maintenance work every six months. The clinic provides routine exams, cleaning, fillings, extractions, and root-canal treatment. The treatment might not be “absolutely pain-free” or “dramatically increase your chance to date Tom Cruise/Kate Hudson,” but what you get is honest assessment and decent care.
If you’d like to be a patient, a volunteer, or a donor (both monetary and dental equipment/supply donations are accepted), you can find useful information at http://www.berkeleyfreeclinic.org