dental for veterans
The Importance of Quality Dental Services for Homeless Veterans
Oral health is important for all veterans, but even more for those who are unhoused. Without access to clean water, dental essentials, or a hygienic place to store their toothbrush, many of our homeless heroes are unable to regularly brush their teeth. Beyond the increased risk of losing teeth due to tooth decay, tooth decay and gum disease negatively impact whole-body health. Unhoused or not, vets that qualify for VA medical services may not be eligible for 100% VA dental benefits. Let’s dive in and discuss the importance of dental services for veterans and the challenges to accessing quality oral care.
Dental Health and Whole-Body Health
It’s a common misconception, but oral health isn’t just about having a beautiful smile. There is a direct link between dental health and whole-body health that we must all be mindful of, but especially anyone with limited access to water and hygiene essentials.
According to the Mayo Clinic, bacterial growth and gum inflammation can lead to:
· Endocarditis—when bacteria or germs enter the bloodstream through the mouth (or other areas of the body), it can increase the risk of infection in heart valves and the inner lining of the heart chambers.
· Cardiovascular disease—oral infection and inflammation have been linked to an increased risk for hypertensive heart disease, clogged arteries, and stroke.
· Respiratory complications—all unhoused are at a higher risk of pneumonia, in part because the bacteria in the mouth can be pulled into the lungs. This can lead to a variety of respiratory complications. It can also increase the flare-ups and intensity of preexisting respiratory conditions.
· Birth complications—gum disease and poor gum health have been linked to premature birth and low birth rates.
· Glaucoma—the American Academy of Ophthalmology links periodontal disease to an increased risk for glaucoma.
· Arthritis—research finds an increased risk of arthritis and other inflammatory diseases in those with periodontal disease.
The Massachusetts Dental Society also finds that deteriorating oral health can be a symptom of diabetes and osteoporosis, either of which may not yet be diagnosed if access to quality healthcare is limited. So, a trip to the dentist can lead to a referral to other healthcare providers.
Toothbrushes Can Introduce Bacteria
When not properly stored, toothbrushes can introduce bacteria to the body. Toothbrushes are designed to fully dry between use to minimize bacterial growth. Those who are homeless or living out of a suitcase or bag, often store their toothbrush in a vented travel toothbrush holder. Although vented, there often isn’t enough airflow for the toothbrush to dry between use.
Airflow is even further reduced if stored (with or without a vented holder) in a zip-top baggie. Bacteria can grow on the toothbrush, baggie, and vented holder. Most bacteria are invisible to the eye, but the humidity created inside the holder and/or baggie can lead to visible mold and mildew growth.
Regardless of the source, bacteria increase the risk of painful mouth abscess. If an abscess is not treated immediately, the tooth may need to be pulled.
Another challenge homeless vets face is that they may not be swapping out their toothbrushes as frequently as they should be, which is at least every 3 months. Regularly soaking or spraying the toothbrush and vented holder in 3% hydrogen peroxide can minimize bacteria growth, but access to health and hygiene products is limited while unhoused. Toothbrushes are a common free item at shelters, so swapping them out more frequently may minimize exposure to bacteria.
Even if toothbrushes are clean and dry, the bristles wear out and become more abrasive over time. This can lead to premature gum recession and gum inflammation. Both conditions increase the risk of infection and bacteria entering the bloodstream through the gums.
VA Dental Coverage Is Limited
Under the current law, the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot provide dental services to all veterans enrolled in their medical program. Currently, about 8% of those enrolled are eligible for dental. In 2022, approximately 600,000 of those enrolled received dental care.
Even those who are eligible face a few obstacles. There are a limited number of available clinics, approximately 200 spread out across the nation. If a clinic isn’t nearby, dental care may fall by the wayside, increasing the risk of the health conditions above.
In addition, the wait time for these clinics can be a week or two, so if a dental emergency arises paying out of pocket may be the only option. Or excruciating pain in the meantime.
VA Dental Insurance Program is Limited
Those enrolled in VA health care who don’t qualify for dental coverage, can purchase reduced-cost insurance through the VA Dental Insurance Program (VADIP). VADIP is provided by an affiliate insurance provider.
To be eligible, you must be one of the following:
· A veteran enrolled in VA health care.
· A current or surviving spouse or dependent child of a Veteran or service member who is enrolled in the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the VA (CHAMPVA).
Some insurance carriers provide separate coverage for dependents who aren’t enrolled in CHAMPVA.
Those eligible for VADIP or CHAMPVA access discounted premiums for:
Endodontic and other restorative services
As important as dental health is, discounted coverage and premiums aren’t something homeless vets can afford.
Providing Free and High-Quality Dental Services for Veterans
As you can see, limited access to oral health care can create a vicious cycle of dental and whole-body health concerns. Not to mention, the aesthetic importance of providing dental services for veterans is more than vanity. Decaying teeth and missing teeth can negatively impact self-confidence and make finding employment more difficult. Without quality employment, it’s challenging to get off the streets.
Providing free dental service is one of the many services Armored Souls provides to veterans. This includes transportation to and from their appointments. Our Veterans have sacrificed everything to keep us safe, so a donation of your time or services is a meaningful way you can give back. We also provide free mental, medical, and rehabilitative health care.
You can donate funding now, or reach out today to inquire about donating time, services, or essential supplies. Every dollar truly helps!