Cecile A. Feldman | The Hill

Veterans Day is the day we thank our veterans for their commitment to our nation and selfless service to our flag. But our commemoration should extend beyond Nov. 11. It should be every day that we thank them for their service.  

One way to do this is to provide better dental care to our veterans for stronger, brighter smiles. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the agency that provides dental care to veterans. It has established categories, or classes, to determine eligibility based on service, current health and living circumstances. Presently, those with service-connected disabilities and compensation, along with former prisoners of war, get full coverage. Everyone else qualifies for limited to no care. 

We have more than 19 million veterans in the U.S. But less than half are registered for VA health care and about 7percent are eligible for comprehensive dental care. In other words, 93 percent can’t access adequate dental care. Of those eligible, 33 percent received care in 2020.

In an attempt to address this decades-long gap in dental care, in 2014, the VA partnered with private insurance companies to offer discounted insurance through VA Dental Insurance Program. In 2019, a pilot program for dental health care access took root to connect veterans with pro bono or discounted dental services, which annually benefits about eight percent of veterans in the VA health care system.

Still, this is a tiny percentage for such a vast population with varying oral health needs. 

A 2021 report, “Veteran Oral Health Expanding Access and Equity,” found that nearly half of veterans experienced gum problems or bone loss whereas 27 percent of non-veterans had these issues. The same report noted that 56 percent of veterans had active and treated decay, again, a percentage higher than non-veterans.  

At the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, we teach our students that poor oral health means poor overall health. Untreated gum disease, for instance, can lead to heart disease. Periodontitis has a connection to birth complications. Studies have documented a connection between oral health and chronic diseases, ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer’s diseases. 

In 2021, VA’s VETSmile Pilot Program launched to care for veterans who aren’t eligible for dental benefits under the agency. In its inaugural year, the program aided more than 2,200 veterans through nearly 5,000 patient visits. 

The Rutgers School of Dental Medicine was tapped to participate in VETSmile, too. With support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, we’re gearing up to start the program at our school in Newark, where we will treat veterans who don’t have dental benefits through the VA.  

Last month, we launched another program through a partnership with Delta Dental Foundation of New Jersey and Connecticut to cover dentures for veterans who don’t have dental benefits through the VA.  

In ways big or small, we try to say thank you to our veterans and show our gratitude at our school. But more must—and can—be done.  

Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, there are several bills in Congress you can ask your legislators in Washington to support that would expand care for our veterans.   

One of those is the Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). This bill calls for the VA to maintain a dental clinic in every state and create a student loan repayment program for dentists, dental hygienists and oral surgeons who join the VA.  

The VET CARE Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis’s (R-Fla.), proposes a pilot program to provide outpatient dental services and treatment.  

The Dental Care for Veterans Act proposed by Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) aspires to broaden dental coverage.  

Our veterans put their lives at risk for us without expecting anything in return. The very least we can do for them is to help protect their health—including their oral health, which is essential for their well-being.  

Their treatment shouldn’t be at the discretion of providers choosing to offer low-cost or pro bono care. Our nation, for which they served, must provide adequate care. Neglecting their health means neglecting their sacrifices.  

Let’s commit to our veterans’ care. Let’s thank them with our actions. Let’s honor them today—and every day. 

This story was originally published by The Hill on November 8, 2022.

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