There are more than 18 million veterans living in the United States today. Sadly, only about 500,000 qualify for dental benefits under the Veterans Administration (VA), and alarmingly, some vets with civilian benefits through private insurers might lose their coverage as soon as 2021. The reality is that oral health is tied to both physical and mental health, and with so many veterans at risk of both types of issues, getting dental care is crucial.
The Cost of Dental Care
Dental care isn’t cheap. Even a routine exam can cost over $250, and fillings, extractions, and other dental services can run from $50 to $4,500 or more. Many veterans forgo dental care because of cost, and this is concerning on many levels. First, we owe our nation’s protectors a debt, and healthy teeth and gums is the least we can provide. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that failure to address dental health can have a negative impact on mental health.
The Connection Between Dental Health and Mental Health
There is a clear connection between the health of the mind and body. People with mental health issues often neglect their oral health, and this neglect can lead to a downward emotional spiral. Tooth decay, periodontal disease, and other oral health conditions can tear away at a person’s self-esteem and leave them more vulnerable to emotional issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The VA Offers Limited Benefits
In 2019, the VA announced plans to launch a pilot program to help all veterans access quality dental services at a free or discounted rate. However, this is yet to come into fruition, and currently, only select vets are eligible for comprehensive dental health care. Veterans with a service-related disability that served during active wartime are among those eligible.
Non-qualifying veterans might be eligible for the Veterans Affairs Dental Insurance Program (VADIP), which is hosted through private insurers. These plans often cover 100 percent of basic services for in-network providers. Unfortunately, as with most dental plans, orthodontics and major services, such as root canal treatment and crowns, are either only partially covered or not covered at all.
Volunteer Dental Care
Veterans in need of dental services may have to rely on volunteer programs to get the help they need. One program, Everyone for Veterans (E4V), works to connect veterans with dentists willing to perform services for free. Still, it’s only available in 15 states, and not every veteran qualifies, as they must have been deployed to combat, be considered low-income, and not have dental benefits through the VA. Those that do qualify may also apply for low- or no-cost treatment for their spouse.
Another helpful source of no-cost dental treatment for veterans is Donated Dental Services (DDS). Through this program, dentists volunteer their time and provide veterans everything from cleanings to tooth extractions.
Discounted Dental Services
Veterans who do not live in an area serviced by a volunteer dental organization might have luck utilizing a dental school for discounted work. Most dental schools, which need patients for their students, typically have cut-rate prices on their services, and all treatment and preventative care measures are supervised by an experienced dentist. Similarly, dentists in some areas may participate in free clinics for low-income individuals.
Employer Dental Insurance
For veterans who are currently working, applying for dental benefits through their employer may be the best solution. Insurance is often highly affordable for employees who go this route. On the downside, benefits might be limited to $1,000 per calendar year. Employees should confirm their benefits and annual out-of-pocket maximums before signing up.
For veterans and civilians alike that cannot afford dental coverage and do not qualify for discounted services, there are several companies that specialize in providing loans for dental work. These are unsecured personal loans, and they are paid directly to the provider. Even people with poor credit might qualify, but these loans do not come cheaply. On the low end, patients can expect to pay around 6 percent interest, and those with a credit score below 600 may wind up paying a 35-percent or higher annual percentage rate (APR).
Medicaid and Medicare
Veterans that qualify for Medicare might find they qualify for extensive coverage through a Medicare Advantage plan (Original Medicare does not offer dental benefits). Low-income vets that qualify for Medicaid might also be out of luck, as 34 states either offer zero dental benefits, emergency-only care, or extremely limited services to Medicaid recipients.
A final option for veterans seeking dental care is to contact their preferred dentist directly. Many are vets themselves and might be willing to offer no-cost or discounted services.
Dental care is just as important as diet, exercise, and mental health care. Unfortunately, it is an expense that many veterans simply can’t take on. Hopefully, the VA will provide better dental care for our nation’s heroes, but until then, insurance, volunteer services, and discounted treatments may be a vet’s best bet.