NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. - One week ahead of Veterans Day, dozens of military veterans sat down Friday at the dental clinic on the west Pasco campus of Pasco-Hernando State College for free dental cleanings, tooth extractions, and fillings.
The annual event – called Stars, Stripes and Smiles – sees dentists within the community donating their time to provide urgent dental care to military veterans living in Tampa Bay who have been suffering from untreated dental pain and infection, all at no cost to the veterans. It's a partnership between the office of Congressman Gus Bilirakis, Pasco-Hernando State College, and the West Pasco Dental Association.
"Oral health is an integral part of overall well-being and a vital component of preventative medicine," organizers said in an announcement for the event. "When left untreated, dental infection often exacerbates underlying health conditions and can increase the cost of care. However, dental care through the VA is currently limited to those Veterans who are 100% disabled or have a direct service-connected injury impacting their oral health."
A vast number of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress, family crises, and have been chronically unemployed. Some are homeless and some are in substance recovery programs.
"These heroes deserve a system of care to ensure their oral health care needs are met. Until that can become a reality, it is our professional privilege to serve this special segment of our community," said Dr. Zacharias Kalarickal of the West Pasco Dental Association.
Organizers told of one veteran named Ken who had been trying over the last few years to have the remaining teeth in his mouth removed so that he could finally obtain a denture so that he can digest his meals better and perhaps have the confidence to gain employment. Though he receives care from the VA system, and though he is a cancer survivor, he is ineligible for any dental care from the VA since he does not have a 100% disability rating.
"Veterans have sacrificed so much to defend our freedom, and they deserve access to high-quality health care, including dental treatment," said Congressman Bilirakis. "I have filed legislation, the VET CARE Act, which would expand Veterans' access to dental care. However, I am very grateful for the generosity of the dentists from the West Pasco Dental Association who are not waiting for a change in law. They are ensuring our heroes receive immediate care, and I am honored to help organize this important event again this year."