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Sanders: More VA Dental Care

White River Junction — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to bring more veterans into the Veterans Affairs health system by expanding eligibility for dental and health services .

Many veterans have serious oral health problems but can’t get treated at the VA because those cavities, broken teeth and other issues aren’t related to their experience in the military. Sanders, I-Vt., is proposing a pilot project to extend dental benefits to some veterans, regardless of how their problems started.

“You have a lot veterans out there who do not necessarily have a whole lot of money, who have dental needs but right now they can’t get those needs taken care of,” Sanders said Thursday during a stop at the White River Junction VA. “And we think that dental care should be considered health care. I break my arm, it’s a health care problem. But if my teeth are falling out, it’s not a health care problem. That’s wrong.”

Fewer than half of the 6.5 million veterans eligible for care at the VA also qualify for dental care.

The three-year pilot project, part of a VA omnibus bill currently making its way through the Senate, would offer coverage to 30,000 more veterans regardless of whether their dental issues are related to their service, he said. And if there is demonstrated need, then Sanders hopes to extend dental coverage to all veterans.

Sanders is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and his proposal is part of a larger push to offer comprehensive care to veterans. Among other proposals, Sanders wants to simplify income requirements and offer additional support for wellness initiatives.

Currently, veterans above certain income levels and without serious disabilities stemming from their service do not receive care at the VA. Income requirements are determined on a county by county basis. That is, the income threshold for veterans in Windsor County is different than that for those living in Orange, Orleans or Addison counties.

Sanders’ plan would establish one income level for each state, set at the highest threshold among all the counties. In Vermont, that would be Chittenden. Doing this would make it easier for the VA to figure out who qualifies and also include more veterans.

“We think that will simplify the process and bring more people into the system,” Sanders said.

Expanding services to more people has the potential to strain the system. The VA Medical Center in White River Junction provides care for 25,000 veterans, though around 75,000 veterans live in its catchment area in Vermont and New Hampshire. White River VA director Deborah Amdur said the medical center and outpatient clinics sprinkled throughout the state could handle a bigger patient load.

“In White River Junction, we do have the capacity,” Amdur said.

Health care dominated Sanders’ agenda Thursday. Besides the White River VA, Sanders visited community health centers in Randolph and Bradford.

Gifford Health Care, a parent company of Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, was recently designated a federally qualified health center, or FQHC, and received an $812,500 grant to expand primary care, dental and mental health services in the Randolph area. Sanders also visited Little Rivers Health Care, an FQHC in Bradford.

Federally qualified health centers are “safety net” providers that offer primary care to under-served rural and urban areas.

The designation entitles the centers to higher payments from Medicare and Medicaid and low-cost prescription drugs. Such centers are at the heart of federal reform efforts to expand primary care.

Sanders’ visit comes as other efforts to expand health insurance coverage struggle to get off the ground. The federal and state online insurance marketplaces launched in October have been plagued by technical problems. Improvements have been made, both to Vermont’s state-run website and also to the federally run HealthCare.gov, which New Hampshire residents use to shop for plans. However, it has been a difficult two months for a key provision of Obamacare.

Sanders acknowledged the difficulties and imperfections of the federal health reform law, but said he believed it was on the right track.

“They have been working night and day. I mean, I’ve talked to some of these people, literally working 24/7 trying to improve it,” Sanders said. “It appears that they have made significant progress. More progress has to be made. I think at the end of the day, it is going to work.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.