Expanding dental benefits for veterans

Current eligibility rules limit access to affordable dental care

As many as nine of 10 veterans seeking dental care at Veterans Administration medical care facilities may be denied access to treatment, despite the dedicated and compassionate VA staff willing to help. VA staff are hamstrung by the eligibility rules governing what classification of veterans receiving medical benefits are also able to receive dental benefits.

Rules for who receives treatment through the VA Outpatient Dental Program are highly restrictive and can only be broadened by Congress to include more veterans with dental issues associated with, and aggravated by, service-connected medical conditions. These rules need changing, and here’s why.

Many of the veterans now needing dental diagnostic and restorative services have served our country during times of war. They have made sacrifices for us and, every day, we enjoy the benefits of their dedication. Each veteran has his or her unique story of former service and, now, the challenges of seeking dental care. If it’s necessary for us to make a few sacrifices for our veterans, we should be willing to do so, because they deserve better than being denied dental benefits.

We need a national solution to the overly restrictive limitations on veteran dental benefits. Many dental professionals in our region are helping veterans with limited resources and no connection to a dental office at which they receive regular care.

For example, Northeast Delta Dental has an informal network of dentists — many of whom are veterans themselves — willing to provide dental services at a deeply discounted rate. We’ve invested well over $200,000 to help as many veterans as possible, one case at a time. And we’re not alone. Many dental offices and clinics make providing dental care to veterans a priority with discounted rates and days set apart for free care.

However, these remedies are not comprehensive enough for this complex problem. This is largely an economic issue for veterans, many of whom suffer with severe dental problems causing pain. Many have added barriers to care, like lack of transportation or the need for a translator. Veterans with more financial resources can purchase individual coverage, but many are forced to decide whether to pay for dental services or other basic life expenses. One of the most compelling reasons not to leave dental disease untreated is its impact on overall health.

We need our veterans to have better access to dental benefits because it makes good economic sense. There is a correlation between oral health and overall health and wellness between receiving regular dental treatment and lowering overall medical costs. As a nation, we can save money on veterans’ healthcare by investing more dollars in dental benefits.

A report by the Wakely Consulting Group, commissioned by Delta Dental Plans Association in light of enhanced Medicare Advantage benefits (including dental benefits) being offered this year, found a correlation between dental benefit use and overall medical costs.

It reported that there is “a consistent correlation between dental benefit use and lower overall medical costs for commercial insured beneficiaries afflicted with chronic conditions, combined with periodontal disease” based on commercial benchmark claims and eligibility data of approximately 130 million members over a three-year period.

We can all help veterans by telling our congressional representatives that we’re unhappy with the number of veterans that have no access to dental benefits. We can encourage members of Congress to put partisan politics aside and work collaboratively to broaden the scope of the existing VA rules governing which veterans with medical benefits also receive dental benefits so that fewer veterans needing help by the VA are turned away.

The dollars invested in dental care will be balanced by savings on healthcare costs. If this less restrictive approach to dental benefits by the VA is adopted, Congress will have accomplished something nearly as heroic on behalf of our veterans as the veterans themselves have accomplished for all of us.

Tom Raffio is president and CEO of Northeast Delta Dental.

Categories: Opinion