Rep. Mikie Sherrill Welcomes Zufall Health and VA’s “VETSmile” Program to New Jersey to Expand Dental Care for Veterans
On Friday, October 29, 2021, just in time for Veteran’s Day, Rep. Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) introduced VETSmile, a new resource for military veterans who do not qualify for dental benefits. Beginning as a five-year pilot program, VETSmile was formed through Zufall Health’s partnership with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) and will operate as a referral network for income-qualifying veterans to receive affordable dental care from Zufall.
A small group — including representatives from the VA’s Center for Care and Payment Innovation (CCPI), trustees from Zufall partner Delta Dental Foundation, vice chair of the American Dental Association Council on Government Affairs Mark Vitale, DMD, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5)’s deputy chief of staff Cheryl Krouse, and veteran patients who have received dental care from Zufall — gathered in the Zufall Wellness Center to hear from Rep. Sherrill and others. The ceremony followed a brief tour of the dental facilities at the neighboring Zufall Health Center site.
“[Zufall] is such an incredible resource, filling an important gap in care… Dental care is too often overlooked in our discussions about veterans’ health. Only about eight percent of the veterans who are enrolled in the VA healthcare system qualify for dental benefits,” said Rep. Sherrill, a longtime Zufall advocate and former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot who has prioritized veterans’ health since taking office in 2019.
Through the collaborative VETSmile program, veterans will have access to Zufall’s high-quality dental services, including emergency dental care, preventative oral care, treatment of oral disease, dental restoration, endodontics, and periodontics.
“I can’t overstate the value that the VETSmile program will bring to the quality of life for thousands of veterans that it will serve,” exclaimed Sherrill. VETSmile anticipates assisting 3,900 veterans through 9,000 visits in the first year of implementation. In addition to Zufall, the VA will refer patients to the New York University College of Dentistry, Rutgers University School of Dental Medicine, and CompleteCare.
A focus on veterans with unmet dental needs is not new at Zufall, explained President and Chief Executive Officer Eva Turbiner. “We started by sending our mobile dental van to the Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Morristown. We had Smiles for Our Heroes events for a number of years, a weekend-long event that could serve around 300 veterans with help from volunteer dentists and our friends at Delta Dental, the New Jersey Dental Association, and a host of other supporters.”
“Now having this formal program, VETSmile, where we are getting referrals from the VA to be better able to target patients, measure outcomes, and improve access I think is really remarkable,” Turbiner said.
The pilot is largely inspired by the VA’s recognition that good oral health is essential for strong overall health. Roshni Ghosh, M.D., MPH, executive director of the VA’s CCPI, provided background. “Previously, the VA was not able to refer veterans to dental care, but a new waiver we received from Congress permits this—and so we ran with it, starting in New York and New Jersey…Right now, there are about 1.4 million veterans nationwide who are not able to pay for dental care, and we want to be able to help all of them.”
Perhaps most meaningfully, guests at the kickoff event heard from Iris Cruse, an Air Force veteran who received dental care from Zufall’s West Orange location following a referral from the VA. “I was very comfortable with my dentist…and I got my smile back. I thank [Zufall and the VA] very much for giving me my smile back.”