The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman is making a strong case for expanding dental care for veterans beyond treatment of service-connected problems.
Of the 6.5 million veterans who receive health care from the Veterans Affairs Department, fewer than half are eligible for dental care, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who chairs the committee and is pushing the proposal.
Draft legislation prepared by Sanders but not yet formally introduced proposes a three-year pilot project at a minimum of 16 locations to furnish dental care for veterans enrolled in VA’s health care system. There would be a co-payment for treatment, with care provided at VA medical centers or clinics or through contract care.
“Poor dental health exacerbates existing health problems, like diabetes and heart disease,” Sanders said Wednesday during a hearing about pending health and benefits legislation. “Our nation’s veterans should not be forced to rely on expensive private insurance, out-of-pocket funds or visits to the emergency room for their oral health needs.”
VA now provides dental care to veterans with disabilities rated at 100 percent, former prisoners of war, new veterans within 180 days of discharge and vets with either a service-connected dental condition or who are determined by VA to need dental care as part of their treatment for a medical condition.
Dental insurance for veterans will be available starting Jan. 1, but the program will charge monthly premiums, based on location and number of family members covered, and will have annual deductibles and annual limits on coverage.
In some cases, premiums could be as low as $8.65 monthly, according to testimony provided to the veterans’ committee by Raymond Kelley, national legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But that’s not the same as free care. “While this program allows veterans at risk for not having dental coverage to be covered, it puts the cost burden on the veteran,” the American Legion said in a statement supporting Sanders’ bill.
Adrian Atizado of Disabled American Veterans said his organization supports provided outpatient dental care to all veterans enrolled in the VA system but opposes requiring co-payments as part of a larger initiative to reduce or eliminate out-of-pocket costs charged for veterans’ health care.
A stumbling block for the proposal could be the cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that dental care for veterans could cost as much as $2,000 per person, although Sanders’ draft bill allows VA to establish an annual cap of $1,000 per veteran.
Kelley said the VFW is not “fundamentally opposed” to Sanders’ idea, but would first like to see the dental insurance program in operation to evaluate its effectiveness.