Senate Hearing Held on Sanders’ Legislation to Expand Dental Care for Veterans

                   

WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 – The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing Wednesday afternoon to consider legislation authored by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to expand access to dental care for veterans.

“The goal of my legislation is really pretty simple: to improve and expand access to dental care for veterans throughout the country,” said Sanders, who is a longtime member and former chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Today, millions of veterans have access to timely, high-quality health care through the VA.  However, very few of these veterans have access to dental care through the VA. To my mind, this doesn’t make sense. The evidence is very clear that a person’s oral health is directly linked to a person’s general health.” 

“If a person has oral health problems – problems with their teeth or their gums – those problems can cause serious diseases and illnesses, everything from heart disease to premature births,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ legislation would create a three-year pilot program to test the idea of ensuring all veterans who are eligible for VA health care are also eligible for VA dental care.

Sanders’ legislation also gives the VA the authority to provide restorative dental care services to veterans. “That means if the VA pulls a veteran’s tooth to prepare them for surgery, they will be able to then furnish the veteran with dentures or implants. We know that missing teeth can have a huge impact on a person’s life. It can affect their mental health, their ability to get or keep a job, or – quite simply – make it hard for them to eat,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ legislation also would empower the VA to provide veterans education and training on effective oral hygiene. “That’s another common-sense, low-cost solution that will help veterans take care of themselves, prevent problems and save the system money,” Sanders said.

Under Sanders’ legislation, the VA would be required to build or lease a dental clinic in any state that doesn’t already have one. This is essential to veterans in Vermont since the VA does not currently offer any onsite dental care at any of the eight facilities that serve Vermont’s veterans.

Sanders’ measure also allows the VA to carry out a demonstration program that uses alternative dental care providers – like those who will be trained through Vermont Technical College’s new dental therapy program – as a low-cost way of improving access to dental care for veterans. 

Finally, Sanders’ legislation includes a provision that would extend access to dental care to veterans who are eligible for VA health care due to toxic exposures. “Many veterans from the Vietnam War, and other eras who were exposed to toxic chemicals by their own government, have terrible problems with their teeth,” Sanders said. “I think we should all be able to agree that these veterans deserve to have their oral health care covered.” 

Wednesday’s Senate hearing included testimony from VA Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence, as well as representatives from several veterans service organizations, including Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).

Weidman, a native Vermonter, said in his written testimony, “VVA most definitely endorses and fully supports this pilot project, and Senator Sanders’ initiative.”

Likewise, the Veterans of Foreign Wars supported Sanders’ legislation - specifically emphasizing their support for the provision that requires the VA to have a dental clinic in every state. 

“This draft legislation would also provide the Secretary with the authority to construct or lease a dental clinic for any state that does not currently have a VA facility that offers dental services. The VFW finds this to be incredibly important, as veterans must have access to dental care and they should not have to cross state lines to obtain that care,” Gerald Manar, former director of the National Veterans Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in his written testimony.

“Right now, there are veterans out there who are suffering because Congress hasn’t made sure that our laws have kept pace with the medical community,” Sanders said. “I think we owe it to our veterans to right this wrong. We owe it to veterans to make sure the VA is leading the way.”