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Supervisors push to bridge the gap with mobile dental services for veterans

SAN JOSE – The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to augment funding for mobile dental services for the County’s resident veterans as part of the upcoming Fiscal Year 2024-25 Budget. This action was brought forward by County Supervisor Joe Simitian and co-authored by County Supervisor Otto Lee, and looks to provide relief to over 64,000 veterans living in Santa Clara County.

“Many of us take our oral health for granted; however, a significant number of veterans are not so fortunate,” said Simitian. “There is a clear need among veterans for dental services, and coverage isn’t as clear cut as one would think.”

Many assume dental services for veterans are covered by the Veterans Administration (VA). This is true if a veteran has a 100% ‘Total and Permanent’ disability rating. According to the County’s Veterans Services Office (VSO), of the approximately 64,000 veterans living in the County, 43,000 are registered with the VA, and less than 8,000 of those registered have a 100% Total and Permanent disability rating, leaving a huge gap in coverage for veterans. Veterans who are Medi-Cal eligible may receive dental services through the State’s Medi-Cal program; however, many veterans require assistance in obtaining coverage. 

“The process to apply for benefits is already frustrating,” said Dan Furtado, Campbell District Three Councilmember and retired U.S. Army Colonel. “Unfortunately, too many veterans slip through the cracks during the process, resulting in a lack of coverage; this is unacceptable. The County plan to augment mobile dental services is a great first step to address the need for veterans’ dental health care.” 

“We learned from veterans, families and Veterans Services Office staff about the unmet need for dental care among our veterans,” said Lee. “These mobile dental services will be a game changer since we found great success during the pilot. I’m grateful to partner with Supervisor Simitian on this referral and look forward to better serving our heroes who have served our nation.”

In January of this year, the VSO launched a pilot program to provide mobile dental services to veterans who visited the VSO. Pilot program services provided included examinations, consultations, x-rays, cleanings, fillings, and extractions.  While the “market rate” cost of these services is approximately $750 per appointment, the mobile dental services provider in the pilot program charges $350 per appointment. With typical discounts applied, County-provided dental services are $450 per appointment. When asked, many veterans in the pilot program cited cost as a barrier to seeking treatment. Simitian said, “There are cost savings to the County that can be realized by augmenting resources for a program that has already delivered tangible results. Even a little bit of help can deliver huge relief to the folks we are looking to help.”

The County’s 2022 Point-in-Time report identified 660 veterans experiencing homelessness, with nearly 80% unsheltered. Over half of those veterans surveyed said they suffered from a physical disability. Mobility issues and lack of reliable transportation limit this segment of the veterans community from seeking out dental services.  A mobile dental services solution would allow the County to deliver services to veterans where veterans are. At the same time, providing services at the VSO is convenient as it allows veterans to access other services and programs during the same visit. Simitian noted that the County’s mobile dental services provider was able to provide services to veterans who attended the County’s inaugural Stand Down event in July 2023. Altogether, the VSO coordinated four free dental services events over just five days; 168 veterans received essential dental services during these events. 

“If the County can deliver that much service with a one-off event,” said Simitian, “I’m optimistic we can do much, much more if we make the commitment.”

“The impacts of neglected oral health are significant. How many of us have had a sore tooth and complained about the pain until we were able to see our dentists?” said Simitian. “For too many of our veterans, relief never comes and many have to live with the pain.”

Simitian noted that, “Our nation says we honor our veterans. We recognize our veterans on Veterans Day; but if we mean it, we need to step up with the services these veterans need and deserve when they transition back to civilian life.”