Less than 10 percent of veterans receive dental care through the Veterans Administration, and those who qualify must have a disability rating of 100%, which leaves many veterans without access to dental care.
However, a Slaton based dentist has teamed up with a national program to provide comprehensive dental care for low-income combat veterans in the Lubbock area.
Mary Glasheen is a military spouse, and before moving to Lubbock, her husband was stationed in Virginia, where she did a one-year dental residency at the VA, she said.
“There were challenging circumstances, where you wish you could offer more care and services but that is not what you’re allowed to do,” Glasheen said. “I don’t know who sets the rules, but you have to follow them. And I realized there are enormous gaps in care.”
Glasheen is a practicing dentist, as well as the Public Health and Outreach Chairperson for the South Plains Dental Society.
The difficulties veterans can face to receive dental care has not gone unnoticed; in 2008 Theresa Cheng founded Everyone For Veterans in Seattle, which is now a nonprofit which provides free comprehensive dental care for combat veterans, spouses and caretakers by partnering with dentists to volunteer their time and services.
All services are pro bono, Cheng said. Some dentists will have openings in their schedules to see veterans, while others may stay an extra hour at the office for the volunteer work. It is not a significant burden on the dentists, and it makes a tremendous difference in the lives of veterans.
Many veterans who have received dental care through the Everyone For Veterans program have reached out to Cheng, she said, sharing stories and sentiments. One veteran was able to lose weight because his procedure allowed him to eat vegetables again, while others would not have been able to afford their procedures on their own.
“It’s amazing that these things, it’s not too much work for us dentists,” Cheng said. “I know it's pro bono work and it would have cost her thousands of dollars and (it was) not attainable, but for us, providing the work, it doesn’t seem like that much (more) work we are doing. But the impact on their lives is just amazing.”
Glasheen knew she wanted to use her profession to help veterans any way she could, she said. She moved to the Lubbock area a year ago and started looking for ways to make a difference. The Everyone For Veterans program stood out to her, so she signed up and started encouraging other professionals to get involved.
“So, it's like a network of dentists that are interested in providing pro bono care for low-income veterans in your area,” Glasheen said. “You know, me as a Lubbock dentist, I’ve signed up. I’ve got colleagues who have signed up and I really want to use my platform as Community Outreach Coordinator, Public Health Chairperson for the South Plains district Dental Society to promote the program and connect dentists together.”
Glasheen got to work, starting with colleagues who were service members or had family who served. She also got in touch with Norman Bearden, the Panhandle and South Plains Veterans Resource Coordinator for Workforce Solutions, to help spread the word to combat veterans in the Lubbock area.
Bearden served 23 years as a submariner in the Navy. He needed dental work, but it was not feasible during active duty.
“My dental issue was actually deemed a medical problem for various factors; it's been a while since I went through that part of it,” he said. “But they were actually going to put me at Port Smith Naval hospital and break my jaw and move it forward.”
He could have had the procedure done during a short command—in which he would be stationed in one place for three years—but he decided not to. He waited until his retirement to get braces.
“So, I waited until I retired, after 23 years and decided finally the time came and I was just going to do it,” Bearden said. “And it made such a difference.”
Like many veterans in the Lubbock area, Bearden’s dental work had an overwhelmingly positive effect on him psychologically, he said. He was no longer self-conscious about his teeth, and this can help many veterans with their confidence, from employment opportunities to personal relationships.
Under the Everyone For Veterans program, and Glasheen’s Adopt a Veteran Dental initiative, each dentist will add a veteran’s case to their workload. Adding one patient to a dentist’s private practice is an entirely achievable goal, Glasheen said. This allows the dentists and the veterans to build relationships, the veterans will be able to maintain their oral health and receive the treatment they need.
Veterans are not receiving the dental care they need because many do not qualify for dental care from the VA. The needs of these veterans an range from basic cleanings and maintenance to fillings and extractions, to dentures and implants, she said. If left untreated, ailments like tooth aches, infections and missing teeth can seriously impact a veteran’s health, confidence and employment. Everyone For Veterans aims to help veterans in any way they can.
“I think that it ranges from keeping them functional and healthy, where you can eat a varied, healthy diet, and you’re able to chew food comfortably and function well,” Glasheen said, “to helping with employment. “If you feel confident in your smile, you’re able to do job interviews and have solid employment, that does wonders for veterans too. And even just taking a tiny financial burden off their plate as they’re working to transition back into civilian life. That would be a goal, too.”
Everyone For Veterans is one of numerous dental and oral care programs aimed at supporting veterans.
Hill & Ioppolo Oral & Dental Implant Surgery of Lubbock has for years been providing free dental work for veterans through the Smiles for Soldiers program. Through the program, veterans or members of the military are provided with a complimentary full-arch restoration procedure, according to Avalanche-Journal archives.
Many dental programs aimed to help veterans are one-time urgent care, Cheng said. Particularly around Veterans Day, many dental offices will offer free or discounted services to veterans and provide the care they can during that visit.
This can be great for veterans who need one problem taken care of, but it can leave others with dental disease that cannot be treated in just one visit, which is why Everyone for Veterans emphasizes comprehensive care and incorporates the veterans into a dentists’ practice.
“We feel that for this population of veterans, which have, I think, done over and above as far as their service, being in combat areas, we want to do this comprehensive care because one thing they don’t have to worry about is dental care,” Cheng said. “So that’s what we emphasize with the dentists who help out in the program.”
Spreading the word about Glasheen’s initiative is a top priority. More than 20 dentists in the Lubbock area have signed up already, Bearden said. Now the focus is on reaching veterans and getting them to apply.
Bearden has mostly relied on social media and news coverage, he said. But he hopes next year, as more dentists and veterans get involved, he can make efforts at advertising to help get the information out.
“But if every dentist, if everyone, adopted one veteran to care for—and I have no idea the response we are going to get from this,” he said. “I would hope we would have more veterans applying for it because, obviously every veteran isn’t going to be approved, but how nice would it be to have that right mixture of number of veterans to the number of providers so that any one provider isn’t overwhelmed with more than they can handle.”
Bearden is also working with the Amarillo VA Healthcare Center to provide resources veterans might need, like transportation or internet access for the applications, he said.
The Everyone For Veterans application process is straightforward, and eligible veterans need only meet three requirements: they must have been deployed to a combat area, show financial need and not receive dental benefits from the VA, according to the Everyone For Veterans application website.
Bearden, Workforce Solutions and the Amarillo VA will provide any assistance a veteran might need, from computers for the applications to help getting to and from the dentist appointments, he said. They will do anything to get the veterans to this service.
There is an overwhelming need for dental care for veterans, Glasheen said. While she can’t solve every problem on day one, she is taking it step by step to give back to the men and women who have served the country.
Spreading the word to veterans is important, but they will not be able to receive care if dentists do not sign up to volunteer. Right now, across the state, there are veterans waiting for dentists in Spring, Waco, San Antonio, Houston, New Braunfels, Livingston, Arlington, Nolanville, Pflugerville, Fort Worth, Commerce, Scurry, Killeen, Montgomery, Brenham and Grapeland, according to a list provided by Cheng.
However, dentists are needed in every state in the country. Those who wish to volunteer their time and expertise can find information here.
“I feel like ultimately we have relied on these men and women, who are, you know, just one percent of the population, for so much, to carry this enormous burden,” Glasheen said. “They are keeping us safe, beyond what we could really comprehend or understand as civilians. And the sacrifice they make to, of course themselves, but also their families - It just is really enormous, and I’ve always felt an extreme motivation to try to use my skills to give back.”
If you are a dental professional who is interested in committing to providing care for one veteran over the course of this next year, please contact Mary Glasheen, DDS, Public Health and Outreach Chairperson for the South Plains Dental Society at 281.750.2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a veteran and are interested in our program, please contact Norm Bearden, Panhandle and South Plains Veterans Resource Coordinator, at 806.282.1146
This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Area dentist champions program supporting veterans' long-term needs