Oregon’s Low-Income Vets Could Get Dental Treatment Under Legislation

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Under a plan before the Legislature, thousands of veterans would gain access to dental care.

There are about 300,000 veterans in Oregon but few have dental benefits through the Veterans Administration, which essentially restricts coverage to those who have been disabled by service injuries. House Bill 4095 would provide care for the poorest who make too much to qualify for free dental coverage provided through Medicaid.

Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg and a dentist, introduced the bill last week in 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. 

“This is not a big ask for a very critical population that could really use the service,” Hayden told the Capital Chronicle. “Once they get to 139% of the poverty level, even if they’re seniors, they don’t have any oral health coverage.” 

The bill asks for an initial investment of $5 million, which Hayden said would likely be enough until 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” of widening the social safety net. 

“This is one of those pieces that would help tens of thousands in our state to have a basic oral plan,” Hayden said.

The Oregon Dental Association, the Oregon Primary Care Association, Oregon Care for All Oregon, veterans and others support the bill, according to written testimony submitted to the House committee.

“There is a large coalition reaching out to me saying, ‘We really need this,’” Hayden said, adding that many people had no idea 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 about only about 15% of veterans have dental care. He’s long believed in offering free dental care to the poor. Since he became a dentist in 1994, he has provided dental services at no cost to low-income people. In 2007, Hayden and his brother, also a dentist, transformed a cargo container into a portable dental clinic. They’ve used it for free cleanings, extractions, fillings and X-rays to low-income communities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California. 

They also took the concept overseas, as part of a nonprofit they created, Caring Hands Worldwide with free clinics in Micronesia, Madagascar and Zambia. Hayden also trekked up Mount Everest to deliver dental equipment 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 along with heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

During testimony, Kevin Fitts with 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 in training in the U.S. Army. 

That was followed by a psychotic episode. After hospital treatment, he said he was discharged and denied veteran 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. 

“This is really needed, particularly (for) the recovery of people in our visual culture where everything is selfies and social media,” he said. The plan would give veterans “some esteem and dignity in being able to smile without hiding your damaged or 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.

 

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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