Under a plan introduced in the Legislative Assembly, thousands of veterans would have access to dental care.
There are about 300,000 veterans in Oregon, but few have dental benefits through the Veterans Administration, which essentially limits coverage to those disabled by service injuries. House Bill 4095 would provide care to the poorest who earn too much to qualify for free dental coverage provided by Medicaid.
Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg and a dentist, introduced the bill last week to the House Health Care Committee. It would cover veterans who earn between 138% and 400% of the federal poverty level, or about $17,000 a year. Veterans with an honorable discharge would qualify as well as those who were not honorably discharged but obtained a state waiver because their discharge was discriminatory.
“It’s not a big ask for a very critical population that could really use the service,” Hayden told the Capital Chronicle. “Once they reach 139% of the poverty line, even though they are elderly, they have no oral health coverage.
The bill calls for an initial investment of $5 million, which Hayden said would likely be sufficient through mid-2023. He said he put a limit at 400% of the federal poverty level to cap the cost.
Hayden said the bill represents “the next piece of the puzzle” in expanding the social safety net.
“It’s one of those pieces that would help tens of thousands of people in our state have a basic oral plan,” Hayden said.
The Oregon Dental Association, Oregon Primary Care Association, Oregon Care for All Oregon, veterans and others support the bill, according to written testimony submitted to the committee of the Bedroom.
“There’s a big coalition that reached out to me saying, ‘We really need this,'” Hayden said, adding that many people were unaware that few veterans had dental coverage.
In the Portland area, only about 3% of veterans who received health care through VA Portland last year also received dental care, spokesman Daniel Herrigstad told the Capital Chronicle.
Hayden estimated that statewide, only about 15 percent of veterans have dental care. He has long believed in providing free dental care to the poor. Since becoming a dentist in 1994, he has provided free dental services to low-income people. In 2007, Hayden and his brother, also a dentist, transformed a cargo container into a portable dental clinic. They used it for free cleanings, extractions, fillings and x-rays in low-income communities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California.
They’ve also taken the concept overseas, through a nonprofit they started, Caring Hands Worldwide, with free clinics in Micronesia, Madagascar and Zambia. Hayden also trekked Mount Everest to deliver dental supplies and provide treatment at a clinic in Nepal.
“I have a license in the Federated States of Micronesia; I have a temporary license in Mongolia and Peru,” Hayden said.
Studies show that poor oral hygiene is associated with cavities and gum disease, as well as heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
During his testimony, Kevin Fitts of the Oregon Mental Health Consumer Association said he was a veteran who once had no dental coverage. He said he had his first schizophrenic episode in 1984 while training in the US Army.
This was followed by a psychotic episode. After being treated in hospital, he said he was released and denied veterans medical benefits, even though he had a pre-existing condition. He said it took him 15 years to get dental coverage through Medicaid as a disabled person.
“It’s really needed, especially (for) people’s recovery in our visual culture where it’s all selfies and social media,” he said. The plan would give veterans “some esteem and dignity to be able to smile without hiding their damaged, broken or diseased teeth.”
The bill is expected to pass the House Health Care Committee and then be considered by the Joint Ways and Means Committee for budgeting.