If you're a veteran, the VA won't help cover your pearly whites unless you fit into some very specific criteria.
Which means it is bizarrely difficult for many veterans to find affordable dental care.
The Department of Veterans Affairs helps veterans with a lot of medical insurance issues. However, veterans only qualify for full VA dental benefits under several specific conditions, including being 100% disabled or a former prisoner of war, or if they developed a dental issue while they were serving.
As a result, veterans struggle to find dental care that they can actually pay for.
And without access to dental care, veterans face life-threatening health risks like periodontal disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attack.
This is where the Mouth Mobile van comes in.
The van, which is run by Aspen Dental, is basically what it sounds like — a mobile dental office. It's a large van that travels through about 30 states each year, giving veterans free dental care.
The company started this initiative as part of its Healthy Mouth Movement, which was launched last year with the goal of reaching the 150 million Americans who are unable to visit the dentist because of high cost, lack of time, or lack of dental professionals nearby.
In 2014, the Mobile Mouth van treated almost 3,000 patients for free. When the volunteer dentists noticed how many of those patients were veterans without access to affordable dental care, they decided to make providing veterans with dental care their exclusive focus for 2015.
Aspen Dental has more than 500 offices around the country but has helped veterans in immeasurable ways thanks to the Mouth Mobile van.
Veteran William Bell, who couldn't get the VA to cover his costs, has Mouth Mobile to thank for his new set of teeth. According to The Huffington Post, when Bell arrived at the Mouth Mobile clinic, the volunteer dentist had to extract 19 of his 20 remaining teeth, which had deteriorated from severe periodontal disease.
Not only did Aspen Dental restore Bell to good dental health, they also provided him with dentures. The whole procedure and dentures would have cost him around $6,000, which he would not have been able to afford.
But it's not only Bell who Aspen Dental has helped. In September 2015, race car driver and Aspen Dental spokesperson Danica Patrick helped honor 2,200 veterans at the Chicagoland Speedway.
It's kind of weird that dental care is treated separately from the rest of our health care.
Dental care is so important not only to one's overall health but to our livelihoods, too. Especially in fields where interacting face-to-face with others is a regular part of the job, having clean, healthy teeth can be a huge advantage. Once Mouth Mobile restored Bell's teeth and provided him with a set of dentures, he had the confidence to apply for a job at the Arkansas Forestry Commission.
But dentistry is still often treated more as a "craft" than a medically necessary field, a centuries-old attitude that still remains today, which is why there's often a lack of availability in dental insurance.
Even the Affordable Care Act didn't initially include dental coverage, making such care unaffordable for many Americans. And a 2014 research brief from the American Dental Association found lack of income and insurance are the chief barriers to accessing dental care.
Mouth Mobile and similar initiatives are only a first step in solving this problem — not just for veterans, but for everyone.
Only when we realize that dental care is essential to our health — and only when we provide better insurance coverage for it — will we begin to make progress in ensuring everyone has the same access to dental care.