WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a continued effort to expand and strengthen access to dental care for veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker (both-D-N.J.) joined their colleagues in introducing the Improving Whole Health for Veterans with Chronic Conditions Act.
The legislation would establish a new pilot program to provide comprehensive dental care to veterans diagnosed with diabetes and ischemic heart disease.
Funded for four years, the program would also study the health outcomes and cost effectiveness of such care, as well as provide loan reimbursement opportunities for qualified dental care professionals who agree to serve for the duration of the pilot at a VA dental clinic deemed high need.
“Access to high-quality dental care is integral to one’s overall physical health and should be part of the whole spectrum of care we offer our veterans,” Menendez said. “I have long-championed expanding health care for our veterans and this pilot program will ensure that dental care is part of comprehensive health care at the VA.”
“Many of America’s veterans are unable to access dental care due to current VA eligibility restrictions,” Booker said. “Dental care is important to our overall health and well-being. I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing this legislation to establish a pilot program that would work towards providing comprehensive dental care to veterans. We owe it to our veterans, who risked their lives in service of our nation, to ensure they have the comprehensive care they deserve.”
Study after study shows that poor dental hygiene is directly linked to other chronic health care conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes triples the risk of getting periodontal disease, a severe gum infection that can lead to tooth loss, bone loss, and other serious health complications. An individual with diabetes and periodontal disease is also three times more likely to develop cardiorenal mortality, a fatal combination of ischemic heart disease and diabetic nephropathy. Another study has found that people with periodontitis, or gum disease, have a greater risk of experiencing a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke.
However, out of the 9.2 million veterans enrolled in VA health care, only 1.4 million are eligible for comprehensive dental care. According to the VA, in 2020, more than 3 million veterans with diabetes and heart disease went without access to affordable, comprehensive dental care, increasing their exposure to the fatal risks associated with these chronic health conditions.
Studies estimate that if 50 percent of veterans are treated for gum disease, over six billion dollars would be saved annually in heart disease and diabetes treatments. In 2020, the VA spent an average of $86,000 per veteran per year on health care for veterans with heart disease, while it spent an average of $11,000 on veterans with diabetes. Compare that with the $1,132 it costs the VA annually to provide a veteran with comprehensive dental care. Additionally, the VA has spent over $124 million in the past four years on emergency room care for veterans with oral health problems who do not have access to affordable dental care. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, of the 2 million Americans who visited the Emergency Room in 2018 for dental emergencies, 1.9 million could have been treated by a dentist, reducing associated ER expenses by 78 percent.
“The goal of this legislation is really pretty simple: To improve and expand access to dental care for veterans throughout the country,” said Sen. Sanders, who is a longtime member and former chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Today, millions of veterans have access to timely, high-quality health care through the VA. However, very few of these veterans have access to dental care through the VA and many also struggle with chronic health conditions made worse by that lack of dental care. To my mind, this doesn’t make sense. The evidence is very clear that a person’s oral health is directly linked to a person’s general health. This pilot program would be an important step toward delivering essential dental care to veterans who really need it, so that no veteran is left behind.”
The Improving Whole Health for Veterans with Chronic Conditions Act is endorsed by American Institute of Dental Public Health (AIDPH), American Dental Hygienists’ Association, American Heart Association, Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors, Care in Action , CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, Common Defense, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Minority Veterans of America (MVA), National Domestic Workers Alliance, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), National Council on Aging, Public Citizen, Save our VA (SOVA), SMART Recovery, Social Security Works, and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
“AMVETS believes in granting our veterans additional opportunities to access treatments and care that could prevent more severe conditions from manifesting. We support the Improving Whole Health for Veterans with Chronic Conditions Act that will provide dental care for veterans with certain conditions that could be made worse by lack of access to this resource,” said Don McLean, AMVETS National Commander.
“As a grassroots organization, Common Defense and our members strongly support the Improving Whole Health for Veterans with Chronic Conditions Act,” said Naveed A. Shah, Political Director at Common Defense. “Expanding access to dental care for veterans who are suffering from diseases which amplify the risk of potentially fatal complications is a commonsense measure. Not only does this fit with the VA’s Whole Health mission, but also will help to reduce health care costs overall, and save lives. We applaud Senators Sanders, Menendez, Whitehouse, Welch, Merkley, Wyden, Blumenthal, Booker, and Fetterman for bringing this important legislation forward. We hope Congress will take it up swiftly.”
“The need for dental care to lessen the complications of diabetes and cardiovascular heart disease is obvious to experienced health care providers,” said Dr. James Martin, National Representative of the American Federation of Government Employees and National VA Council. “This bill gives the VA the opportunity to demonstrate that providing dental care to veterans, will improve their overall health and well-being, lessen their risk of complications from cardiovascular heart disease and diabetes, and accomplish this at impressive cost savings. These savings will be apparent when historical costs and outcomes of those who did not have dental benefits are compared with those who will have dental benefits.”
Sen. Menendez has been a strong advocate for providing better health care and benefits for our veterans. In May, Sens. Menendez and Booker, along with U.S. Representatives Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.-14) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.-12), reintroduced the bicameral Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, historic legislation to save the lives of pregnant women and mothers, and increased funding for programs to improve maternal health care for veterans.
In March, Sen. Menendez introduced legislation to ensure U.S. veterans can access education benefits they have earned. The legislation would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to update its technology to pay GI Bill benefits for veterans taking approved coursework while attending educational institutions — such as universities — abroad that lack an Employee Identification Number (EIN) or a U.S. bank account.
In 2022, the Senator celebrated the signing of bipartisan legislation into law, which expanded health care and benefits for more than 3.5 million veterans across the country who were exposed to toxins while serving in the military. The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, includes the Sen. Menendez’s Improving Benefits for Gulf War Veterans Act, which expanded access to essential benefits for veterans who served in the Gulf War and other wars in the region.
In addition to Sens. Menendez and Booker, the Improving Whole Health for Veterans with Chronic Conditions Act is cosponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.-26) introduced the House companion to this bill.