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Dentists back dental coverage for low-income Oregon veterans

The link between oral health and overall health is undeniable, and yet too many Oregonians do not regularly see a dentist. This includes thousands of low-income military veterans, because the vast majority of veterans receive no dental coverage as part of their health benefits. Luckily, our state has an opportunity to change this.

House Bill 4095 is a straightforward solution that would ensure thousands of veterans have access to dental care. Sponsored by Rep. Cedric Hayden, a dentist himself, the bill would establish a program within the Oregon Health Authority to provide dental care to low-income veterans starting in January 2023. It would extend coverage to Oregon veterans whose income is 138% to 400% of the federal poverty level, or about $17,000 annually.

Veterans and their families need access to high-quality health care, which includes dental care. Today, about 300,000 veterans live in Oregon, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides dental care for a tiny fraction. For example, in the Portland area last year, just 3% of veterans reportedly received dental care as part of their health benefits at the Portland Veterans Administration Hospital. According to national estimates, 15% of veterans receiving VA health care are eligible for dental coverage, but too few actually receive the care they need.

Many dentists volunteer their services to provide free care for veterans and others without dental coverage, and at the federal level, discussions are underway about relieving some of this burden by creating new dental student loan relief programs, as well as increasing access by requiring dental clinics at VA hospitals. As these discussions continue at the national level, we need action now to close the gap for low-income veterans who are ineligible for VA dental care.

Without adequate dental coverage, veterans suffer worse health outcomes. People without routine oral health care are at greater risk not only for gum disease and cavities, but also for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, adverse pregnancy outcomes and other serious health conditions. Individuals who suffer from poor oral health are more likely to experience depression and reduced quality of life. Untreated dental disease also leads to higher costs in our health care system. Investing in low-income veterans’ oral health is an upstream solution that benefits everyone.

Oregon dentists are united in expanding access to safe, high-quality, equitable oral health care for all Oregonians, and HB 4095 is one step toward achieving this goal. Going forward, legislators interested in health equity have opportunities to close the gap for additional Oregon residents as well, such as through an expansion of Medicaid to cover dental care for more residents living in Oregon under the Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia.

We are proud to serve the oral health needs of those who have served the state and country, and we applaud the leadership of Rep. Hayden and other legislators as they work to address disparities in veterans’ oral health.

Dr. Calie Roa, DMD, is a family dentist in Medford and president of the Oregon Dental Association.