Giving Veterans a Reason to Smile
Allison M. DiMatteo, MPS
Some military veterans have been left behind when it comes to oral healthcare and healthcare overall. Unless they sustained a 100% military service-connected disability, are a former prisoner of war, or have a service-related dental disability, US military veterans do not qualify for full dental benefits when they return from active duty. And, when they are covered, the wait times are long and the care is limited at US Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.
But there is hope and help, thanks to two pioneering efforts that have raised awareness of the issue and rallied other dental professionals nationwide to help support veterans with much needed dental care.
Serving Those Who've Served
Veterans Smile Day is an annual, nationwide event that provides free dental care and support to military veterans. First conducted in New Jersey on Veterans Day weekend in 2012 by Deryck Pham, DDS, a former US Navy dentist deployed to Iraq with the US Marines, the event enables veterans to receive anything from routine oral examinations to hygiene cleanings, basic fillings to extractions, and root canals to temporary restorations-all without charge. Inspired by the outcomes from the first year's event-during which 35 veterans received free dental care services-Pham and Bijan Anvar, DDS, recruited more dentists from throughout the country, including Karin Irani, DDS.
For Irani, becoming involved in the program became personal. First, her father was an Army veteran, so she was intimately familiar with the sacrifices that veterans and their families make in order for them to serve our country. Second, when she learned that many veterans don't receive any dental benefits and that she could provide a much needed and life-changing service to them, it became very important to her to help grow the program and promote awareness of it in any way she could.
"At first, it was unbelievable to realize that veterans are not receiving the dental care services that they need," Irani declares. "In my mind, people who are willing to give their lives for our country deserve anything we can do for them after they return."
Through her active involvement with the American Dental Association, Irani helped Veterans Smile Day become a national event, held annually on or about Veteran's Day (November 11th). As a result, what started with 10 practices in its first year and grew to 30 practices in its second year, now officially involves more than 600 dentists nationwide as well as company sponsorships from Henry Schein and Procter & Gamble, which together have provided more than $60,000 worth of supplies and materials.
"Based on what reports participating dentists have provided to date, data indicates that more than 5,000 veterans have received free dental care since the event began," Irani says, noting that these figures only represent data supplied by participating dentists who choose to provide information. "In many cases, dentists have been inspired to open their offices to veterans, but we don't hear about it."
Irani admits that one of their goals was to raise dentists' attention of veterans' dental needs and encourage them to become more proactive about helping meet these needs. For this reason, Veterans Smile Day is unstructured; dentists can participate whenever and however works best for them. For example, they might dedicate an entire Saturday to treating only veterans or set aside a weekday during which only veterans are scheduled for care. It's not uncommon for a dentist to treat as many as 5 to 30 veterans on that day, depending on their needs, says Irani, who treated 22 patients on Veterans Smile Day in 2017.
"Of course, there are many cases in which veterans may need ongoing care and/or more extensive restorative or prosthodontic care," Irani explains, adding that how much treatment is provided and/or how referrals are handled is up to the discretion of each participating dentist. "However, many dentists participating in the event have told me that they've provided certain things-such as crowns, root canals, or cleanings-to veterans for free at follow-up visits. In those situations, an added benefit of the program is creating a dental home for veterans so they can receive ongoing dental care."
An Innovative Model of Care and Support
For Kris Volcheck, DDS, MBA, the creation of Brighter Way Dental Center in Phoenix, Arizona, represents the realization of his vision of establishing a sustainable solution for providing the best dental care services to his community's most vulnerable individuals: the homeless and military veterans. It is one of three organizations comprising the non-profit Brighter Way Institute, which also includes the Parsons Center for Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics and the Canyon State Academy Dental Center.
It was towards the end of 1999 when Volcheck, now CEO of Brighter Way Institute, first began preparing Arizona's only dental clinic for the homeless. He had seen firsthand the devastating effects of homelessness on an individual's oral health, and he understood that although the US Department of Veteran's Affairs was doing everything it possibly could, something needed to be done to ensure that unfunded, homeless veterans could receive the dental care they needed.
At the time, his clinic was affiliated with the Central Arizona Shelter Services. Originally in a trailer in a field, Volcheck's two-chair dental clinic operatory was sustained via lean budgeting and reliance on donations and foundational support.
Fast forward to July 2016 when the non-profit Brighter Way Institute was officially formed, and since then, nearly 25,000 veterans have received dental care as a result of Volcheck's visionary mission. According to Volcheck, this was made possible by fulfilling two of the biggest needs he's seen: providing much needed, comprehensive dental care to those who need it most and providing dentists with a means to obtain high-quality, expertly instructed, hands-on, live patient education.
"We're very fortunate that we can provide care that is unrelated to contracts or any financial constraints for our veterans," Volcheck explains, noting that it was critical for him to safeguard his clinics from problems related to the ebb and flow of foundation donations. "We can provide our veterans with any dental care that's needed-whether its full-mouth implants, crowns, or infection control-to elevate them to the highest level of oral function and health."
Helping to make Volcheck's vision a reality is the fact that in Arizona, dental professionals can visit charitable institutions and donate their professional services as long as their license is valid. As a result, they can treat homeless veterans in a supervised setting at Brighter Way Dental while participating in intensive, hands-on implant training programs.
"Bringing in hundreds of dentists from across the country for training sustains our mission," Volcheck elaborates. "Dentists pay us tuition for the program, and while receiving training from highly-skilled instructors, they're placing thousands of free implants and restorations for our veterans."
Helping to make the most comprehensive dental care available to veterans through Brighter Way Dental Center are several product manufacturers, including Affordable Dentures & Implants, BioHorizons, and Implant Pathway, who support 4-day live implant and denture training courses. Other program sponsors include Carestream Dental, Sterngold, Meisinger, Benco Dental, and Implant Concierge. The main reasons behind the ongoing buy-in and support for Volcheck's vision are that businesses can train doctors on their systems, dentists can learn the most up-to-date techniques from qualified instructors, and veterans can receive life-changing treatments that could otherwise cost from $40,000 to $60,000, he says.
"The tears of appreciation and the transformations that we see in our veterans on a weekly basis-it's just overwhelming," Volcheck admits. "To see this concept actually work to lift people up and give them a healthier smile is very exciting."