‘It’s just so damn expensive’: Dental care an uphill battle for Oklahoma veterans

Less than 10 percent of the 61,000 veterans in Tulsa County are supplied with dental benefits through the VA, causing many to forgo dental insurance altogether, according to the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Ian Hutchinson. GRANT BUMGARNER/The Frontier

Ian Hutchinson sat in the waiting room and filled out his paperwork. Adorned in torn jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap that read “US Army,” he had come for his first dental checkup in months.

Ten years removed from his service at Fort Benning, Georgia, Hutchinson finally secured a job at the Tulsa Glassblowing School a year ago, but cannot afford dental insurance.

“I’m just trying to get my life back on track, bit by bit,” he said as he left to see the dentist.

On June 24, Hutchinson was one of thousands treated by Aspen Dental as part of its nationwide program to provide free dental care to veterans. Proof of military service was all that was needed to be eligible for a fully subsidized evaluation at any of Aspen’s 630 offices. Aspen’s Tulsa office alone would serve more than 20 veterans that day.

The need for this type of service is considerable. Of the 21 million veterans in the U.S., less than half are enrolled for health benefits with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and 1.2 million have no health-care coverage at all.

Even among those with departmental benefits, very few actually qualify for dental care. The VA’s eligibility standards require that a veteran be 100 percent disabled, suffer from a service-related dental injury or have been a prisoner of war in order to qualify for dental benefits.

“I go to the VA for my PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) treatment,” Hutchinson said. “But I haven’t had dental insurance since I left the Army. …It’s too expensive.”

When it comes to lack of coverage, Ian is not alone. Less than 10 percent of the 61,000 veterans in Tulsa County are supplied with dental benefits through the VA, causing many to forgo dental insurance altogether, according to the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.

Tulsa’s Ernest Childers Outpatient Clinic, which serves eastern Oklahoma, provides care to more than 39,000 veterans, said Nita McClellan, a public affairs officer for Eastern Oklahoma Veterans Affairs.

Of those, only 5,300 have been receiving ongoing dental care over the past three fiscal years, with an additional 500 qualifying for limited dental benefits, she said.

Though many Tulsa veterans don’t have dental insurance, the roughly 5,800 veterans receiving dental benefits at Ernest Childers required more than 34,000 procedures during 14,512 visitations in the 2016 fiscal year alone.

The Eastern Oklahoma Veterans Affairs recognizes the issue but essentially has its hands tied, McClellan said.

“The eligibility requirements are laid out clearly by the VA,” McClellan said. “And that’s all federally controlled.”

Ian Hutchinson. GRANT BUMGARNER/The Frontier

Though Ernest Childers has seen a slight uptick in the number of veterans receiving dental care, at a rate of about 6 percent annually, that increase is primarily because more eligible veterans are signing up, rather than eligibility being more broadly applied.

“The clinic’s budget is determined on a per-eligible veteran basis,” McClellan said. The limited budget makes extra expenses for non-eligible veterans an impossibility, she said.

And some eligible veterans simply don’t know of the resources available.

Dave Burlin works at the American Legion Post 1 in Tulsa and aids veterans struggling to navigate the web of benefits.

“The challenge with veterans’ transition from service to normal life is visibility,” Burlin said. “There’s no centralized service to help them access what’s available.”

Larry Child, a Vietnam veteran and retired firefighter, had been experiencing dental issues for years before he heard of Aspen Dental’s service.

“This is my first time here,” Child said minutes before his checkup. “My wife found out about it listening to the radio.”

Child has spent years working with the VA after his tour of duty in Vietnam left him with PTSD and a variety of medical problems.

“It’s getting better,” Child said. “The VA used to be a lot slower. …But they still won’t pay for much.”

Hutchinson and Child said they counted themselves lucky to have heard of Aspen Dental’s service in time to take advantage. Yet, for thousands of uninsured veterans in Tulsa County, accessing dental care remains difficult, regardless of their needs.

Dr. Alexander Williams, a dentist who runs the Tulsa branch of Aspen Dental, said the needs of the veterans he saw ranged from “mere fillings and cleanings, to extractions and root canals.”

Without the free checkup, the veterans’ ailments would likely have remained untreated. A root canal provided free of charge by Aspen Dental would have normally cost $2,500 without insurance.

“It’s so damn expensive,” Child said as his name was called. “It’s just not worth it.”

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Grant Bumgarner

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