WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 – Ahead of a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Wednesday introduced two bills to expand and improve comprehensive health care for veterans.
The Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act of 2021 – co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) – and the Veterans State Eligibility Standardization Act of 2021 will ensure universal dental care coverage for all veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and eliminate long-standing barriers to health care for veterans across the country.
“If a country is worth anything, it’s in how we treat the people who put their lives on the line to defend us,” said Sen. Sanders. “As the former chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I have seen up close the pain, death, and despair caused by war and its aftermath. Honoring that extraordinary sacrifice and bravery is one of the most important commitments we have as a country. That means making sure our veterans and their families have access to the best and most comprehensive health care, including dental care, our country can provide. With this legislation, we will strengthen the VA health care system so that all veterans can get the care they were promised, and no veteran is left behind.”
“This legislation will bolster the VA’s whole health approach, expanding essential dental care access to all veterans enrolled in the VA system,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “Veterans across the U.S. and Connecticut, including those in rural and underserved communities, deserve quality and affordable health care services. By opening new VA dental clinics, promoting dental health education, and recruiting dentists to work at the VA, the Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act will ensure dental care is part of the preventative and emergency care services our nation’s bravest can access.”
“Dental care is health care, however, due to current VA eligibility restrictions, the vast majority of America’s veterans are prevented from accessing this benefit – making it critical that we expand coverage,” said Sen. Booker. “This important legislation would eliminate current restrictions to ensure that the VA has the necessary staff and facilities in all states to provide dental care to veterans. We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, and this legislation is a necessary step forward in honoring their service and sacrifice.”
“Today, dental care is not treated like the vital health care it is and only a small fraction of veterans are eligible to receive dental care through the VA because of stringent eligibility requirements,” said Sen. Gillibrand. “With the VA’s Dental Insurance Program set to expire at the end of the year, now is the time to prioritize dental health care and pass the Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act of 2021. This bill would help eliminate eligibility restrictions and make dental care more affordable and accessible to all veterans.”
“Dental care is a key part of comprehensive health care, and an essential part of fulfilling our promise to holistically address the needs of veterans in Hawaii and across the country,” said Sen. Hirono. “This legislation would make needed and overdue updates to the care that veterans can receive through VA.”
“Our veterans have served our country with honor and dignity, and yet millions are locked out of critical VA benefits such as dental care due to strict eligibility restrictions at the agency,” said Sen. Menendez. “Veterans in New Jersey and across the country deserve to have access to the resources and benefits they need to live healthy and productive lives after their military service, and that’s why I am proud to be supporting this important piece of legislation that will expand access to dental care for millions of veterans and support them in maintaining good dental hygiene and overall health.”
The VA has reported that out of the 9.2 million veterans enrolled in VA health care, only about 1.4 million are eligible for comprehensive dental care. However, in 2020, VA dental services managed the care of only 402,000 eligible veterans as well as an additional 61,000 due to medical necessity. Only 80,000 purchased dental insurance through the VA Dental Insurance Program and in 2020, the decrease in veteran enrollment and compensation and pension exams due to the pandemic created an estimated backlog of 2.5 million dental procedures.
The Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act of 2021 will eliminate the current eligibility restrictions for VA dental care and expand eligibility to all veterans receiving VA health care. It will also work to address the shortage of dentists in the U.S. by incentivizing dental school enrollment and service to our nation’s veterans, and ensure the VA maintains dental clinics in all states to meet the needs of veterans from all parts of the country.
Poor dental hygiene is directly linked to other chronic health care conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, upper respiratory disease, dementia, and diabetes, leading to increased overall health care costs. In 2016, Avalere estimated that if Medicare covered initial and ongoing gum disease treatment for beneficiaries with diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, it would save Medicare $63.5 billion over a decade. Each $1 of new spending from dental coverage saved approximately $10 in Medicare costs, primarily from reduced hospitalizations and emergency room visits.
The Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act would ensure the VA educates veterans on their eligibility for dental care and the importance of dental hygiene for an individual’s overall health; improve veterans’ overall physical health; and provide a reduction in long-term taxpayer spending on VA health care.
In addition to Sens. Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Booker (D-N.J.), Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Menendez (D-N.J.), the Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act of 2021 has the support of a wide array of veteran and health care organizations, including: The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), The American Heart Association, The American Legion, AMVETS, The Coalition of Veteran Organizations (CVO), Common Defense, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Justice in Aging, Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), Modern Military Association of America (MMAA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and VoteVets.
Running parallel to the fight to guarantee veterans universal dental care is the effort to simplify and expand the eligibility process to receive health care through the VA. While more than 9 million veterans are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), approximately 5.6 million veterans have no health insurance and are unable to get care at the VA. Currently, veterans face a complex set of requirements and enrollment processes to determine eligibility for health care coverage from the VA, including more than 3,000 different geographic-based income eligibility thresholds across the nation.
To simplify the system and ensure more veterans can get the care they need at the VA, the Veterans State Eligibility Standardization Act of 2021 will limit the number of geographic regions to one per state and set the income eligibility threshold in each state to the most generous in that state. This policy will continue to use Housing and Urban Development (HUD) metrics to determine the most generous income eligibility threshold in each state and set each state’s eligibility threshold at 100% of the highest median income in each state. For the many brave veterans who fought to protect our nation and have been left with no affordable means of securing quality health care, this small administrative change will significantly expand eligibility, particularly for veterans in rural areas, to receive care through the VA.
The Veterans State Eligibility Standardization Act of 2021 is supported by the Coalition of Veteran Organizations (CVO), Common Defense, The American Legion (TAL), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and VoteVets.
The Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act of 2021:
The Veterans State Eligibility Standardization Act of 2021: