By Stephanie Kalota
Founder, Veteran Legislative Voice
Only 8 percent of the total veteran population is eligible for dental care. The only way to gain eligibility is to either have a service connected dental condition, be a former prisoner of war, rated at 100 percent Permanent & Total (P&T), or rated with Individual Unemployable (IU). The Department of Veteran Affairs does provide dental insurance, but it is at cost to the veteran.
When most people think about medical care for veterans, dental care is probably last on the list. Most think of mental health or toxic exposure treatments. What most people do not realize is that poor oral health can increase the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, dementia, respiratory problems, and even erectile dysfunction.
Right now, our veterans are more likely to have issues because of the toxic exposures; for instance, military personnel were found to be nearly 40 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than non-military personnel.
When veterans do not receive regular dental cleanings, they can develop cavities and tooth decay, gum disease, and likely will lose teeth. When tooth decay and gum disease happen, that opens up a possibility of more damage to the rest of the body because bacteria and viruses can go into the blood stream and wreak havoc elsewhere.
What Congress has already done to help veterans, was passing House Joint Resolution 80 during the 116th U.S. Congressional Session. This resolution created a pilot program that would help veterans find community programs and providers that offer pro bono or discounted dental services.
This program is only in place in Veterans Integrated Services Networks (VISNs): 2, 8, 10, and 12. There has been zero word how this pilot program is doing, nor whether it will be expanded.
In this current congressional session, Representative Julia Brownley introduced H.R. 914, Dental Care for Veterans Act.
This bill proposes a phased eligibility start up, so veterans in certain categories would become eligible for the benefits on a sliding timeline. Senator Bernie Sanders introduced S. 3017, Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act. This bill expands dental benefits to all enrolled veterans, and it will also include a phased start up.
While this sounds like a great idea, it is a tough sell for many because these steps will be costly. In 2018, the VA spent about $1.1 billion on veteran dental care, averaging around $2,185 per veteran. Again, these costs are only for the 8 percent of veterans who are eligible for it.
Expanding dental care would require VA hospitals to hire more staff, find more workspaces, and coordinate care with the local community. But it would be worth it to make veterans’ lives better.