Dennita Cunningham’s tooth ached so badly, it felt like it had its own heartbeat.
Normally, the 41-year-old mother of two would shell out the $300 her dentist said it would cost to fix the problem — a cavity that had reached a nerve.
But not this week. Cunningham, who works for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, hasn’t gotten paid since the federal government partially shut down at the beginning of January.
“It’s a huge deal. You have a little in savings, but everything starts popping up. It’s like Murphy’s law,” she said.
The utility bills needed to be paid, her children — a high schooler and a junior in college — needed to eat. And then a pipe burst in her Philadelphia home.
The family’s rainy day fund didn’t last long, and Cunningham has had to make difficult budget decisions.
“Should I buy food or just fix my tooth?” she said.
Luckily, she didn’t have to choose.
Temple University’s dental school on Monday began offering free emergency dental care to furloughed federal workers for the duration of the shutdown.
The clinic is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Temple’s Kornberg School of Dentistry, 3223 N. Broad St. Workers with proof of employment can make an appointment by calling 215-707-2900. Walk-ins are also accepted until 3 p.m.
Even families with full-time jobs and dental insurance often struggle to afford dental care, said Amid Ismail, dean of Temple’s dental school. Offering free emergency services to furloughed federal workers is a way to lessen their financial burden just a bit, he said.
Cunningham has health insurance through her job with the government and pays an additional $100 a month for dental insurance. Even so, her out-of-pocket costs can be significant.
“People think we’re congressmen, and everything is paid for. We’re not,” Cunningham said. “It still costs me.”
Cunningham said she heard about the clinic through a Facebook group where families have been sharing resources for furloughed workers.
As the shutdown continues, other health systems also are stepping up to help furloughed federal workers make ends meet.
Penn Dental Medicine is providing emergency dental care to furloughed federal employees weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 240 S. 40th St. Walk-ins are welcome through 3 p.m., or call 215-898-8965 to make an appointment.
Main Line Health is deferring co-payments and deductible billing for furloughed workers who visit one of the health system’s hospitals, health centers, or urgent care centers until the government is fully reopened.
Cunningham said she was grateful to Temple for treating her tooth problem.
She’s not sure when she’ll get paid again, so in the meantime, Cunningham said, “we’re putting a Band-Aid on everything.”