In Maine there are approximately 150,000 veterans; 90,000 are over the age of 55; many live on fixed incomes and many are unable to afford dental care. Just 9,000 of Maine’s veterans are eligible for dental benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The need for dental care among U.S. military veterans is great. The 2010 American Community Survey reported that 39.5 percent of uninsured veterans reported unmet dental needs and 33.7 percent reported delaying care due to cost. Uninsured veterans reported significantly more unmet and delayed needs than those with insurance.

As a veteran of the United States Navy, I have witnessed first-hand the sacrifices of our enlisted men and women. And, like most of us, I am well aware of the challenges many veterans face upon discharge from the military.

Recognizing an opportunity to give back to some of those who have sacrificed for our country, we opened our Lewiston dental practice to local veterans in need and committed to completing complex treatment plans on a number of the patients. Many were referred to us from VA Support Services. We saw veterans of the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Desert Storm.

We provided care to a gentleman who had lost his wife just the week before. He had a tumor in his bladder and was going into the hospital for surgery. I removed several teeth and Mike Adkins, owner of Smile Again Dentures and a U.S. Air Force veteran, donated a set of dentures.

One patient who is enrolled in a vocational training program has severe anxiety about visiting the dentist. We have been working with him on periodontal treatment, extractions and fillings, and he is returning for root canals.

Another veteran has been without teeth for two years. It is a difficult denture case and I am doing the work in-house.

We had patients with tears in their eyes because they didn’t know where or how to get back to good oral health. All were tremendously grateful. Many of these veterans have jobs but cannot afford dental care and do not qualify for any assistance. The extent of their dental disease is significant and could not be managed by someone other than a dentist.

As dentists we recognize the urgent and unmet need for dental care in our state. The vast majority of us provide free or reduced services to patients in our practices, we volunteer at clinics and we participate in events such as Dentistry with a Heart and Dentists Who Care for ME.

Though these efforts will not solve the problem, they do have a very real and significant impact on the oral and overall health of the patients we treat. We are opening a door — it is a critical first step. And, there are a lot more steps we can take.

Instead of focusing on legislation that further fragments the delivery of dental care and threatens the crucial relationships among dental professionals in our state, let’s come together to create a comprehensive, workable plan that realistically addresses the oral health needs of our citizens.

Instead of focusing on establishing a new type of dental provider, let’s work together to incorporate the University of New England’s fourth year dental externs into our system of care and to develop strategies to ensure that the graduates of the new dental school choose to stay in Maine.

Instead of focusing on the misinformation being disseminated about dentistry in our state, let’s work together to pass legislation that will identify MaineCare-eligible children who are not receiving dental care and will find them dental homes.

It makes sense to start with children. Maine’s dentists are committed to working with the Department of Health and Human Services to get these children into dental offices and clinics up and down the state. We are committed to educating their families on the importance of prevention — brushing, flossing, a healthy diet and visiting their dentist. And we are committed to improving the oral health of all Mainers.

Let’s work together to open the doors to a truthful dialogue that yields real solutions to Maine’s oral health crises with the hope that one day all our veterans will have the services and treatments they need as well.

Peter J. Drews, DDS, served in the United States Navy and now practices in Lewiston


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