John Wilguess, executive director of the Oklahoma Dental Foundation, said a sizable percentage of Oklahomans don't go to the dentist, in part, because of lack of education.
“People know they're supposed to go to the doctor or they know nutrition is important, but we haven't gotten to a point where the majority of Oklahomans understand or acknowledge that dental care is important,” Wilguess said.
Another issue is access.
In rural Oklahoma, it's easy to drive 40 miles and not see a dentist office in any community, he said.
And even when a town has a dentist, it doesn't mean all Oklahomans will have access. In Guymon, for example, no dentist takes SoonerCare.
In fact, 12 Oklahoma counties do not have a Soonercare provider, and 13 counties have only one SoonerCare provider.
Many of the counties along Oklahoma's southwest border don't have SoonerCare dental providers.
A handful of children and adults on SoonerCare go out of state for their dental care.
About 209 of the 288,611 SoonerCare claims submitted over the last six months of 2013 came from out-of-state SoonerCare providers.
Dr. Dunn Cumby, a dentist in Oklahoma since 1976, said Oklahoma City and Tulsa, especially the higher income areas of both cities, are more saturated with dentists.
It's more appealing to set up a practice in more affluent areas, he said.
Cumby, the chairman of community dentistry at the OU College of Dentistry, said the school is working to get students out into rural and underserved areas of Oklahoma.
“What we're finding is, when we send the kids out there, a lot of them are giving second thoughts to practicing in those areas,” he said.
And efforts like the Oklahoma Dental Loan Repayment Program have started to help.
The program repays loans of up to 25 Oklahoma licensed dentists for a two to five year period per dentist, according to the state Health Department.
Cumby said events like Mission of Mercy and the foundation's mobile dental unit help, but the state has to find solutions beyond those one- or two-day efforts, he said.
“It's a wonderful thing to be a part of it, but at the same time, what happens to other people on the other 363 days of the year that we're not there? But it's a good start,” he said.