Bill Seeks to Expand VA Dental Coverage; Links to Overall Health Cited

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — With research increasingly demonstrating a link between poor oral health and cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other conditions, fewer than half of the veterans receiving VA healthcare services also are eligible to receive dental services, according to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

To remedy that, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a bill last month that would require VA to extend access of dental services to enrolled veterans not already eligible for this benefit.

Each year, more than 6.5 million veterans receive VA health care services but “fewer than half of these veterans are eligible to receive VA dental care,” according to Sanders.

“We are introducing legislation that would for the first time allow veterans to get dental care other than service-connected. Right now, if you are service-connected, you get good quality dental care. If you are not, you don’t,” he said during a hearing held last month.

The bill would create a three-year pilot program providing dental care and treatment to all enrolled veterans that would be consistent with the dental services and treatment provided by VA to veterans who are 100% service-connected disabled. The legislation would authorize VA to provide these dental services at 16 locations, including VA medical centers, federally-qualified health centers, and  Indian Health Service facilities. It also would provide contract dental care to veterans enrolled in VA’s health care system as well as education to promote oral health.

The Minneapolis VA Dental Service provides multi-specialty care to veterans who meet eligibility requirements.

Meanwhile, VA announced last month, after the bill’s introduction, that it is partnering with Delta Dental and MetLife to allow eligible veterans and Civilian Health and Medical Program beneficiaries to purchase dental insurance.

According to VA, the three-year pilot is designed for veterans with no dental coverage, or those eligible for VA dental care who would like to purchase additional coverage.  There are no eligibility limitations based on service-connected disability rating or enrollment.

“This new dental program is another example of VA creating partnerships with the private sector to deliver a range of high-quality care at an affordable cost, for our nation’s veterans,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a written statement.

Sanders explained in a written statement that bad oral health “impacts overall health, including increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and poor birth outcomes.”

“According to the National Institutes of Health, oral health should not be interpreted as a separate issue from general health,” he said in the statement.

Oral Health

VHA officials said they would offer a formal view on the bill at a later date. Robert L. Jesse, MD, PhD, VA’s Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Health, acknowledged, however, that a lack of access to dental care is a “serious issue” in the U.S and “by that very nature it is an issue for veterans.

“I am a cardiologist, and it has been known for 20 years that periodontal disease has a linkage to heart attacks. It creates a systemic inflammatory state which drives a number of different issues,” he told lawmakers. “So dental health is a part of a holistic approach to health as in other forms.”

Sanders asked Jesse whether he anticipated that many veterans that would take advantage of the opportunity if access to dental care is expanded to them.

“I can tell you that there would be,” Jesse said.

VSO representatives told lawmakers that they also support the bill.

“Several studies have shown that poor dental health contributes to and in fact leads to deterioration of the overall physical and mental health. This being so, the case is compelling to add dental care to the package of benefits to patients at VA healthcare facilities who are not 100% service-connected disabled,” Vietnam Veterans of America Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs Rick Weidman told lawmakers in a written statement.

The Disabled American Veterans also is behind the bill but said in a written statement that it did not support a section of the bill that stated that VA “may collect copayments for dental services and treatment furnished under the pilot program.”

Comments (4)

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  1. Richard M. Levine says:

    I find it atrocious that dental care at the VA is so severely limited to a very few veterans. The VA plan to shift veterans to two private insurance companies, Met Life and Delta Dental is also a sham and expensive for veterans later in life who need regular expensive dental care and can not afford it. In contrast I understand that prisoners and prisoners of war are given free dental care without all the limitations imposed on veterans to provide such care to the very few veterans who receive it. This is no way to treat our heroes, and does not represent a world-class health care system for veterans. It is long past time to provide this important health care service to all veterans in the VA health care system with no exceptions whatsoever. I know people who participate in the Veterans Affairs Committees and they note that this is discussed, but fails to pass each year it is discussed. It is long past time to institute this vital health care service.

    • Robert Bowles says:

      I concur that dental care is essential to the well being of veterans. I am 88 years old and have just (1) tooth left but keeping that tooth is important. I can’t afford dental care and the problems I’m having with my dentures and (1) tooth are effecting my overall health. Any efforts to get dental services from the VA world be most appreciated.

  2. Mike Jarrett says:

    I would have really loved to have dental benefits available. I have been taking medications for years ordered by my VA pcp that have totally destroyed my teeth. This pcp admits these meds cause damage to the teeth but isn’t willing to state so in my medical record so that maybe I could have had my teeth extracted by VA and gotten some dentures. I am 70% service-connected and disabled with social security as well. This bill hopefully goes thru for other veterans even though I just had all of my teeth extracted and get my new dentures next week. Good luck to all veterans with dental care benefits in very near future. Everyone needs to write to your elected officials and Secretary McDonald.

  3. Richard M. Levine says:

    Please see my petition for dental care for all veterans at: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/comprehensive-outpatient This has some real comments from veterans regarding the poor dental care given in the service and after by the Veterans Administration—a real disaster.

    Whatever Bernie is doing is our typical politician double talk—much talk and no real results. I finally gave debating with the VA about my lack of dental care when they advised me how they would provide me with service, if it were ever approved. They would extract the tooth and leave a permanent hole where it once was. This is entirely barbaric, subhuman dental care. No civilian dentist would do such poor work. You get the same inadequate dental care when you qualify as 100% disabled. Again, look at the comments from real veterans in my petition link above. The politicians just do not want to pay for real dental care for any veterans,

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