A Case for Providing Oral Health Care for All Veterans
Reflecting on the past two-plus years of COVID-19, we have experienced impacts in different ways. Most of us have been impacted in some way. Some of us contracted the disease. Others have family members or friends who suffered or continue to suffer with COVID-19.
Did you know that, among those hospitalized with COVID-19, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are the most prevalent underlying comorbidities (more than one disease or condition at the same time)? Did you know that periodontal disease (infections and inflammation of the gums and bone that surround and support the teeth) is associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease?
We know there are disparities in healthcare, including oral health, particularly in poor communities and among minority populations. This includes our veterans.
Did you know that roughly two out of five veterans describe their oral health as fair or poor? This translates to approximately eight million veterans with self-reported suboptimal oral health.
Veterans experience poorer oral health outcomes compared to non-veterans, and they were impacted disproportionally when dental practices closed during the pandemic. Oral health impacts overall physical and mental health. Individuals with oral health issues struggle with their confidence, relationships, and employment. Veterans living in poverty are more likely to experience oral health issues and, without access to dental care, many find themselves trapped in their circumstances.
Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) provides dental care to veterans with a 100% disability rating, former prisoner of war, or those with service-related dental conditions. This leaves millions of veterans living with chronically poor dental health, especially for those with low incomes and those who served in combat.
An Issaquah-based nonprofit, Everyone for Veterans, is dedicated to improving the lives of our nation’s veterans by mobilizing members of the community to provide practical support and comprehensive dental care. Through their experience and conversations with hundreds of veterans, they have learned and realized that veterans face multiple factors or causes that challenge oral health, including access to dental care.
Approximately 90 percent of the veterans served by Everyone for Veterans suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or, in many situations, a combination of these. Also, approximately 90 percent of veterans in their program have some form of periodontal disease. Research suggests there is a strong association between oral health conditions like erosion, caries (progressive destruction of bone or tooth), and periodontal disease, and mood conditions like stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. It is more important now than ever before to look at providing integrative and supportive dental programs that focus on prevention, screening, and treatment.
Many veterans have described returning to civilian life as more difficult than combat itself. The transition to civilian life can be challenging and navigating community resources can be overwhelming. Community involvement can be one of the most effective ways to help veterans feel at home. It shows them that we haven’t forgotten about them and that we truly appreciate their sacrifices.
Contributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, BSN is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, Seattle Human Services Department. She thanks Jessica Elwell, executive director of Everyone for Veterans for helping with this article and for her compassion and tireless work to support our veterans.