Practical guide on dental benefits and health recommendations for Veterans

Based on information provided by the US Department of Veteran Affairs and other reputable sources.

How does military service affect your dental health?

Veterans, compared to civilians, are at higher risk of dental problems. The nature of military duty has a significant impact on oral health. 41% of Veterans report negative perceived dental status. The main causes of oral complications among veterans are:

Physical issues

Service in combat areas exposes soldiers to many dangers. Jaw fracture and tooth loss are a common result of falls, orofacial injuries, and explosions.

Chronic diseases

Difficult conditions and chemicals used by the army induce lots of chronic illnesses and cancers, which impact dental health.

Trauma

PTSD and mental illnesses often lead to addictions destructive for health and teeth. Psychotropic drugs cause various oral problems.

Age-related issues also strongly influence mouth health. Soldiers’ struggle with dental problems does not end along with their service. The consequences of poor oral hygiene and bad habits impact teeth over the years. Ignoring these problems influences general health and negatively affects socializing.

What dental problems are common among Veterans?

Gum disease

Gum disease occurs when bacteria build-up causes infection of the gum tissue. And here’s an interesting dental fact: periodontitis can be liked to systemic diseases like heart trouble.

For example, asbestos used to be commonly utilized in the construction of ships, planes, tanks, and barracks. Exposure to this material induces mesothelioma - a type of cancer that attacks the lungs and heart and influences oral health.

This condition is a common side-effect of cancer treatments and chemotherapy. Veterans are up to 75% more likely to develop some form of lung cancer. The reason is long-term contact with cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) during service.

Symptoms:

  • loose and sensitive teeth,
  • tender, swollen, bleeding gums,
  • painful chewing.

Treatment:

  • deep cleaning performed by a dentist,
  • therapy that controls bacterial growth,
  • quitting smoking,
  • maintaining oral hygiene.

Dry mouth

Limited saliva flow sounds innocent but has a huge impact on oral health. Spit is necessary to remove harmful bacteria and keep tissues in the mouth in good condition.

Dryness accompanies conditions such as AL Amyloidosis, which is a result of exposure to herbicides. Many Veterans serving in Afghanistan had long-term contact with these chemicals.

Dry mouth is also a common side-effect of numerous medications for anxiety and depression. 1 in 4 Veterans suffer from mental illness.

What’s more, 64% of Veterans reported that they had smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lives. This also increases the risk.

Symptoms: - tooth decay and cavities, - gum disease, - sores and mouth infections.

Treatment:

  • ask your doctor about adjusting your medicines or therapy,
  • drink plenty of water,
  • chew sugar-free gum.

Cavities

Cavities are detrimental to tooth enamel or dentin. They are painless at the beginning but if untreated, they may cause serious problems.

80,000 Veterans suffer from Parkinson’s disease, often due to exposure to herbicides. This condition negatively affects dental health and complicates maintaining good oral hygiene, which increases the risk of cavities.

Tooth decay is also a result of plaque build-up caused by drugs and alcohol abuse or PTSD.

Symptoms: - a visible hole in your teeth, - tooth pain, - tooth sensitivity.

Treatment: - fillings, - crowns for damaged teeth, - root canals in severe cases.

Bruxism

Bruxism is a medical name for grinding and clenching teeth. It can occur during the day or while you are sleeping. Bruxism can be very damaging to the condition of your dental health.

Veterans suffering from PTSD or anxiety are more likely to involuntarily grind their teeth. Parkinson’s disease also increases the risk of bruxism.

Symptoms: - damages in enamel, - cavities, - fractured or chipped teeth.

Treatment:

  • wear a mouthguard at night,
  • train yourself to relax your jaw muscles,
  • talk to a therapist about how you can reduce your stress.

Jaw damages

Cranial and oral-maxillofacial damages account for 33% of visits to military treatment facilities for battle injuries. The jawbone is often broken, fractured, or dislocated.

These traumas are results of falls and physical assault during training and combat. Accidents involving bullets, artillery fire, and explosions frequently lead to oral damages.

Jaw damages require urgent dental care. Find a dentist near you and report there immediately. Your best bet would be to look for one who specializes in surgery.

Symptoms:

  • pain and bleeding,
  • breathing difficulties,
  • jaw stiffness,
  • discomfort when chewing.

Treatment:

  • the dislocated jaw must be manipulated back into the correct position (under local anesthesia),
  • broken or fractured jaw requires surgery,
  • while recovering from a jaw injury, follow an easy-to-chew, soft diet.

Missing teeth

More than 60% of Veterans have at least one missing tooth. Such deficiencies in smiles may be destructive for nutrition, health, and confidence.

Given the nature of military service, many soldiers experience tooth loss due to injury. Veterans are also prone to gum disease and cavities, which often result in missing teeth.

Symptoms:

  • impacted speech,
  • shifting teeth,
  • problems with chewing.

Treatment: - dental implants, - dentures, - bridges.

Do Veterans have dental benefits?

It’s possible to receive dental care through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. These Veterans’ dental benefits include free or low-cost treatments and insurance at preferential prices. The familiarity with this possibility, however, is still too low.

More than 7 in 10 respondents did not use Veterans health care services.

Among those who did not benefit from VA help, 4 in 10 claimed they were not aware of the privilege.

Another 3 of 10 Veterans from the same group did not know how to apply for VA health support.

Dental coverage for Veterans through the VA health program

VA provides more than 200 dental clinics for Veterans across the country. Veterans may be eligible for different forms of dental treatment, depending on their service history. The requirements are very strict, however.

Class I

Veterans who: have a service-connected compensable dental disability or condition are eligible for: any needed dental care.

Class II

Veterans who: apply for dental care within 180 days of their discharge or release from military service, and served on active duty for 90 or more days are eligible for: one-time dental care.

Class IIA

Veterans who: have a non-compensable service-connected dental condition or a dental disability that resulted from wounds in combat or service trauma are eligible for: any needed dental care.

Class IIB

Veterans who: enrolled in a qualifying VA homeless residential rehabilitation program for at least 60 days. are eligible for: a one-time course of dental care that is determined medically necessary to relieve pain, assist you to gain employment, or treat moderate, severe, or complicated and severe gingival and periodontal conditions.

Class IIC

Veterans who: are former prisoners of war are eligible for: any needed dental care.

Class III

Veterans who: have a dental condition that VA has clinically determined to be associated with and aggravating a service-connected medical condition are eligible for: dental care to treat the oral conditions that have a direct effect on your service-connected medical condition.

Class IV

Veterans who: have a service-connected condition rated at 100% disabling, or who are receiving the 100 percent rate by reason of individual unemployability are eligible for: any needed dental care.

Class V

Veterans who: are actively engaged in a VA vocational rehabilitation program under 38 U.S.C. Chapter 31 are eligible for: dental care to the extent necessary to make possible the veteran's entrance into the rehabilitation program or prevent the program interruption.

Class VI

Veterans who: are receiving VA care or are scheduled for inpatient care and require dental care for a condition complicating a medical condition currently under treatment are eligible for: dental care to treat the oral conditions that are determined to complicate your medical condition under treatment.

Exact classification can be found on the VA website.

Due to rigorous VS program eligibility, only 8% of Veterans qualify for oral care benefits. During the previous fiscal year only 580,000 Veterans received dental care. That makes no more than 3% of the US Veteran population.

VA is planning to launch a pilot program that would connect Veterans with dentists in their area. Specialists will offer free or discounted dental care to all Veterans – not just those with a service-connected disability.

How to register for VA dental benefits?

  1. Sign in to your VA.gov account to save your application in progress.
  2. Prepare: your Social Security number, a copy of your military discharge papers, yours and your dependents’ financial information, your most recent tax return, account numbers for health insurance you currently have (e.g. Medicare or private insurance).
  3. Fill out the 10-10EZ health care application.

Your claim should be processed within a week. If you don’t get an answer, contact VA before applying again.

VA Dental Insurance Program (VADIP)

Using VADIP Veterans and their dependents can buy private dental insurance for a discounted price. To enter a program, you need to be enrolled either in VA health care (if you are a Veteran) or the CHAMPVA (if you are a dependent of a Veteran or service member).

You can use VADIP benefits independently of whether or not you are eligible for free VA dental care. The program covers procedures like: diagnostic services, preventive dental care, endodontics, dental surgery, and emergency care.

At the moment, offers from Delta Dental and MetLife are the only ones available for veterans.

Free or low-cost dental services for Veterans

9 out of 10 veterans do not qualify for dental care under VA health benefits. As of 2020 there are about 1.5 million Veterans living in poverty. Finding a budget for oral care under such circumstances is challenging. It’s not surprising that every other veteran has not been to the nearby dental office in the past 6 months. At the same time, neglecting oral health has a huge impact on general health and lowers the standard of living. Don’t hesitate to seek financial help.

Non-profit programs

Among the most popular nonprofits dedicated for Veterans are: Everyone for Veterans, Dental Lifeline Network, SmileFaith Veterans Dental Clinic, Helping Hands Dental Foundation.

Veterans memorial days

Dentists often take part in events dedicated to Veterans, e.g. Memorial Day (last Monday of May) or Veterans Day (November 11). This is a great opportunity for free dental care for Veterans.

Discounts at private practices

Private offices often offer reduced or even free dental care for Veterans. Many dentists served themselves, making them sensitive to issues you may be facing. You can find information online. Alternatively, visit or call your nearest practices and simply ask.

Dental saving plans

Dental plans for Veterans will let you lower the costs of dental treatments by about 10-60%, no matter how often you need it. Anyone can qualify for their programs. You sign up and pay a monthly or annual fee and have to visit in-network dentists.

Community health centers

HRSA (Health Resources and Service Administration) programs provide services to those who have trouble accessing high-quality health care. They also operate in rural areas. Use the search engine to look up available locations in your state.

Dental schools and univerisities

They offer low-cost treatment performed by students under the supervision of an experienced specialist. You can find out whether they are willing to provide free dental services for Veterans by contacting them directly.

References

  1. Oral Health Perception in Veterans with self-identified disabilities: National Survey of Veterans, 2010 - NCBI
  2. Lung Cancer - MesotheliomaHope
  3. Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Prognosis of Mental Health Among US Veterans - NCBI
  4. National Survey of Veterans, Active Duty Service Members, Demobilized National Guard and Reserve Members, Family Members, and Surviving Spouses - VA
  5. VA Dentistry - Improving Veterans’ Oral Health - VA
  6. Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Centers - VA
  7. Find VA locations - VA
  8. Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs - VA
  9. Apply for health care benefits - VA
  10. VA Dental Insurance Program (VADIP) - VA
  11. CHAMPVA benefits - VA
  12. Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs - VA
  13. VA Dental Insurance Program (VADIP) - VA
  14. Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Centers - VA
  15. PTSD Patients Damage Teeth Through Involuntary Grinding, Clenching, UB Study Finds - Buffalo
  16. Oral–Maxillofacial Injury Surveillance of U.S. Military Personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001 to 2014 - AMSUS
  17. Rural Veterans’ Dental Utilization, BRFSS, 2014 - NCBI
  18. Dental Benefits for Veterans - VA
  19. All Veterans Would Get Dental Care Help Under This Proposed Plan - Military
  20. Veteran Population Projections 2020-2040 - VA
  21. Medicare missing dental coverage - NYTimes
  22. Veteran Poverty Trends - Data.gov
  23. Veteran Poverty Trends - VA
  24. Dental Care Utilization among Veterans by Smoking Status - Hindawi
  25. Veterans Affairs Dental Insurance Program - Delta Dental
  26. Veterans Affairs Dental Insurance Program (VADIP) - MetLife
  27. Oral Health Perception in Veterans with self-identified disabilities: National Survey of Veterans, 2010 - NCBI
  28. Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Prognosis of Mental Health Among US Veterans - NCBI
  29. Everyone for Veterans - EFV
  30. Dental Lifeline Network - DFN
  31. Smiles 4 Veterans - S4V
  32. Helping Hands Dental Foundation - HHDF
  33. Find a Health Center - HRSA