Victors for Veterans: Giving them something to smile about

Most veterans do not receive dental care coverage This causes many to struggle with dental problems throughout their lives I am a Vietnam veteran. I’m at the Northwest Health Services today for some dental work and dental students from University of Michigan are assisting me and getting my teeth, which I-ve always had bad teeth, removed, repaired and restored.

NORBERT TUTLIS

VETERAN

United States Army So they are improving my smile.

Victors for Veterans

is a program at the U-M School of Dentistry that’s basically designed to treat veterans that fall below a certain threshold of income are able to be treated for free, and we-ve been

KELLY CHICK

DENTAL STUDENT AND V4V VOLUNTEER

University of Michigan School of Dentistry able to do this through the volunteers of, you know, students, different doctor, and then securing different grants.

from the MBA Foundation and Delta Dental, and that allows us to provide free dental care for veterans

47.5% of veterans

say their oral health

causes a lot of worry

ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR

COMMUNITY BASED DENTAL EDUCATION

University of Michigan School of Dentistry There is no service available oral health care for these individuals. They do not have the funds themselves to engage in a private practice model or even in a community health model.

For the last decade Victors for Veterans

has provided no-cost treatment

for nearly 500 veterans

TIM RICHARDS

VETERAN

United States Army

1:27 The Victors for Veterans, if it wasn-t for them, I wouldn-t have any teeth right now at all.

TIFFANY SENSOLI

DENTAL STUDENT AND V4V VOLUNTEER

University of Michigan School of Dentistry Being here was just as great because you get to really see how important Dentistry is and why it-s really hard sometimes for people to get the care they need.

Timothy Richards, a disabled U.S. Army veteran, had a long history of dental trauma by the time he heard about a clinic that offered free care to veterans like himself.

"The Victors for Veterans-if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have any teeth,” Richards said. "I’ve always had horrible teeth. No one’s ever seen me smile for years until I came here.”

Over the past decade, the University of Michigan School of Dentistry has provided free, comprehensive care valued at about $1.7 million to more than 480 veterans statewide. The dental school expanded on the success of that first initiative by establishing a second clinic in Brighton and a third in Pontiac. The clinics are part of the dental school’s Victors for Veterans program, or V4V, which was established in 2012.

The program is critical because the military doesn’t cover dental treatments for most veterans. The V4V clinic provides comprehensive care to disabled, homeless or uninsured veterans who have incomes at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines.

"There is no service available for oral health care for these individuals. They do not have the funds themselves to engage in a private practice model or even in a community health model,” said Howard Hamerink , associate director of community-based dental education at the School of Dentistry, who started the clinic.

The Traverse City clinic operates out of Northwest Michigan Health Services Inc. Interns from U-M Dental School work with patients. The walls are painted with reminders to "brush, floss... SMILE,” in a curly scroll.

Recent dental school graduate Kelly Chick, who served as a V4V volunteer for four years, said the program has made it this far on the volunteer hours of doctors, students and donors who fund much of the clinical work.

"Dental care, in general, kind of gets thrown by the wayside. It’s not deemed essential to survival, but it really does make a true difference in a veteran’s life,” she said. "It’s crazy how much just giving patients a new set of teeth, or helping them to retain chewing function, and being able to chew meat, or nuts, or things that they haven’t been able to enjoy for a really long time. So basically, we’re just trying to establish a better quality of life for these patients that they can’t get elsewhere.

"They’re all so grateful for the care that we give them and they really allow us as students to grow and develop, and they’re patient with us, even though we take longer than if you were to go to a private practice dentist, who’s been practicing for years, but they sit here and they let us do our work and it’s been really great.”

The number of students who volunteer to be involved with the program is growing and now represents 10% of all U-M dental students, who must contribute their time and skills above and beyond their many other challenging academic requirements.

Recent graduate Tiffany Sensoli said the experience showed her how important dentistry is and why it’s so hard for people to get the care they need sometimes.

"The last patient that I saw, he had four purple hearts, super accomplished in the military and he had a glass eye because he got hit in the face with a mortar. He told me, ’You don’t know how much this means to me and how much it means to people like me.’ And he got all teary and just said that we’ve made such an impact,” Sensoli said. "So yeah, it feels really good. And you realize how important the work that you’re doing is, and you’re not just doing it for school.”

Hamerink says that because the VA provides dental care only for those veterans who suffered orofacial injuries during combat, were prisoners of war or are totally disabled, many vets-particularly those in lower socioeconomic groups-have not had regular dental care over the course of their lives after leaving the military.

That means they often have major dental problems that take multiple dentist office visits to solve. And these problems are often complicated by chronic pain, post-traumatic stress syndrome and addiction issues.

"They are a highly complex, special-needs population-medically, emotionally, physically and socially,” Hamerink said.

For Norbert Tutlis, a Vietnam War veteran and Traverse City resident, the reminders to improve his diet and oral hygiene are sinking in. He’s been getting treatments at the clinic for a couple of years now.

Tutlis, who says he’s always had bad teeth, is in the process of restoration.

"They are improving my smile and encouraging a healthier lifestyle by getting good teeth,” he said. "If this wasn’t available to me, I would probably have false teeth by now.”

The clinic in Brighton was launched with a grant from the Michigan Dental Association Foundation-$45,000 over three years. The Delta Dental Foundation recently awarded the Traverse City V4V a three-year $270,000 grant, which helped secure a third V4V clinic in the Pontiac area. Several other donors provide in-kind services and Ward Laboratory has provided reduced rates for the clinics.

Richards’ wish is that all veterans could have access to dental care "cause there’s a lot of us out there that are disabled and can’t work, and there’s some out there that are homeless and don’t have the option to work, to brush their teeth and everything. I think this is the best thing they ever could have thought of.”
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