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Thursday, April 28, 2011 04:12 pm

State grant helps vets find quality dental care

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Kirby Carlson finally can get the dental care he needs.
PHOTO BY HOLLY DILLEMUTH
When it comes down to paying rent or caring for a tooth infection, which would you choose?

Many people might say they would choose to pay the rent but Kirby Carlson, 39, of Springfield, didn’t have a choice. He had to find dental care, even if he couldn’t afford it.

The Persian Gulf War veteran has suffered from a tooth infection during the last year and has needed up to three teeth pulled for months. He says that last month alone he paid $300 out-of-pocket for dental work, money that came out of benefits from the U.S. Navy. The fees caused him to miss his rent payment, but that is no longer the case after he qualified for a voucher for a free dental cleaning, examination and assessment through a state grant awarded to the Veterans Assistance Commission of Sangamon County April 12.

The Springfield resident is one of the first recipients of the voucher for free dental care paid for by a $35,000 grant awarded by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Three years after Carlson was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy, he began to have panic attacks and anxiety, both symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. These symptoms, as well as the loss of his job, didn’t give him motivation to keep up his dental health, and he says it led him to neglect severe problems with his teeth, including a tooth infection.

“I just didn’t floss every day and then I stopped getting checkups every six months,” says Carlson.

He was treated for PTSD and depression at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care Center in Danville, but he was told that he couldn’t receive a tooth extraction or filling unless he was prisoner of war or had an injury that was directly related to combat service.

Carlson has been without steady work with benefits since losing his job at a radio broadcasting company in Peoria in 2004. He has had trouble finding work and dental coverage since. He is unemployed but will soon start looking for a job again.

“It’s been really a rough few years,” says Carlson, who served in the U.S. Navy between 1992 and 1996.

But things are starting to look up for the Springfield resident, and several other Sangamon County veterans who are in need of dental care. More than a dozen veterans, including Carlson, have applied so far to receive a voucher for dental care through the Veterans Assistance Commission of Sangamon County.    

Carlson was the first veteran to receive a dental voucher through the VAC. He had his first appointment Tuesday, April 26, through a dental provider that he chose, and luckily it won’t be his last dental visit. He still needs fillings and up to three teeth pulled.

Vouchers will be dispersed to qualified veterans on a first-come, first-served basis  for those who meet certain standards put into place by the commission. A single veteran must have an income of $985.83 or less per month or $11,830 per year. For veterans with one dependent or who are married, the standard is $15, 493 per year or $1,291.08 per month.

Each veteran who qualifies will receive a voucher good for one teeth cleaning, examination and assessment, and added care if needed.

Other care providers accept payment plans on more extensive dental care, like fillings and teeth extractions, like the Capitol Community Health Center in Springfield. But getting dental work is not as easy as it sounds for patients who need immediate care or cannot afford payments.

The Veterans Assistance Commission of Sangamon County helps low-income veterans like Carlson get the services they need, like emergency assistance with groceries, rent and utilities, help getting life insurance benefits and arranging clinic and hospital visits. But up until now, there haven’t been resources for veterans in need of dental care.

“It’s providing a service that’s not being offered,” says John Farrow, superintendent of the Sangamon County Veterans Assistance Commission, of the grant.

Before the grant, Farrow says that SCVAC might have referred Carlson to Catholic Charities where veterans are given a limited voucher for up to $500 for dental care if they qualify. But through the VAC grant, veterans like Carlson will be able to get additional services like fillings and other treatments if needed and are not limited by a dollar amount until the dental grant runs out.

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com

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