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'Stars, Stripes and Smiles'

Florida event advocates for expansion of dental care for veterans

October 26, 2015

By Kimber Solana


Stars and stripes: Volunteers of the inaugural Stars, Stripes and Smiles pose for a group photo. In all, 18 dentists, along with dental assistants, dental hygienists and other volunteers, treated more than 50 veterans Oct. 9 at Pasco Hernando State College.
New Port Richey, Fla. — In an effort to raise awareness of the need to improve and expand dental care for veterans, the West Pasco Dental Association and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., teamed up to provide dental care to former military servicemen and women in Pasco County.
    
Aptly called "Stars, Stripes and Smiles," 18 dentists treated more than 50 veterans during the inaugural event, held Oct. 9 at Pasco Hernando State College.
    
"We worked with the congressman's office to find and treat veterans who are homeless or chronically unemployed," said Dr. Zack Kalarickal, event organizer. "We really selected the people who needed care the most, the ones who had been struggling to get care."
    
In all about $30,000 in services were provided during the event, including dental cleanings, root canal therapy, tooth extractions and dental fillings. Sponsors included Henry Schein Cares Foundation, which provided all of the event's consumable supplies and materials.
    
Patients for the event were preselected through service organizations that work closely with the veterans community. The veterans were treated at the college's dental hygienist school, which had 12 treatment chairs; volunteers also provided oral health education.

In addition, Dr. Kalarickal said, the event was a reminder of the dental care issues veterans faced.
    
"The event was one small needed piece," Dr. Kalarickal said. "It was one way for them to find relief from pain, but it's not a solution to care. It's just one day. It's not comprehensive care."
    
When it comes to dental care, many veterans simply fall through the cracks. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans have to meet certain eligibility factors to receive dental care, such as a service-related dental disability or condition or if they are a former prisoner of war.


Seeking expansion: From left, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., and Dr. Zack Kalarickal, stand outside the U.S. Capitol building. The two men teamed up to provide dental care to former military servicemen and women in Pasco County, Fla. In addition, Rep. Bilirakis is expected to propose new legislation seeking to expand dental benefits to veterans.
The dental care through the VA is limited to those who are 100 percent disabled or have a service-related injury affecting their oral health, said Dr. Kalarickal, who served in the Navy from 1999-2002 and is a graduate of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership.
    
"Our veterans have sacrificed so much to defend our freedom and they deserve access to high quality health care," said Rep. Bilirakis in a statement. "I am in the process of developing legislation that will 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."
    
Dr. Kalarickal said the legislation is expected to be introduced around this year's Veterans Day holiday.
    
"These heroes deserve a system of care to ensure their oral health care needs are met," he said. "Until that can become a reality, it is our professional privilege to serve this special segment of our community."
    
On a related note, more dentists across the country are volunteering on Nov. 13-14 for this year's Veterans' Smile Day, organized by Drs. Karin Irani and Deryck Pham — both graduates of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership. Last year, 80 dentists from 50 offices in five states saw about 600 veterans during the event.