When Rep. Andy Kim speaks with National Guardsmen and reservists in his home state, they often have the same message – finding consistent and affordable dental care is a challenge.
“Speaking with them, hearing their stories, it became clear to me that something needed to be done,” the New Jersey Democrat wrote in an email. “Dental care is a top readiness issue for our Guard and reserve, which is why I decided to move forward on this effort first.”
On June 16, Kim and Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi) introduced the Dental Care for Our Troops Act. If approved, the bipartisan bill would guarantee that every guardsman and reservist receives no-fee dental health care just like active-duty service members already do ― even when not on active status.
“No-cost dental care will save families money, ensure that Guard [members] and reservists are ready to deploy, and our bill would make sure that everyone who serves doesn’t have to worry about the cost of visiting their dentist,” Kim wrote. “It’s more than just about the money or readiness; it’s also about peace of mind.”
The Dental Care for Our Troops Act is part of the larger Healthcare for Our Troops Act. When guardsmen and reservists have access to the same level of health care as their active-duty counterparts, they are able to deploy and serve immediately.
Retired Army Reserve Major Gen. Peggy Wilmoth remembers when dental problems affected Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There were four levels of “dental readiness,” she said, with Category 3 meaning the troop could not deploy.
“What they found in Desert Shield and Storm was there were awful lot of reservists with Category 3 dental problems,” she said.
Sometimes to get enough bodies in formations, dentists would simply yank troublesome teeth, she said.
After the operations ceased, officials created TRICARE Reserve Select, a guardsmen and reservist dental insurance plan that troops could purchase. But Wilmoth said the costs often ate an entire drill weekend’s pay for junior enlisted members.
“This is an issue that has taken an awful lot of time, and this bill would certainly simplify that process,” Wilmoth said. “It’s very much needed for reservists to have some parity with our active-duty brethren.”
Wilmoth serves as the chair of the National Health Services Committee for Reserve Association of America (ROA), which has endorsed Kim and Kelly’s bill.
“I can’t say enough for these two representatives supporting this particular effort,” Wilmoth said. “This is a benefit to help provide some equity across the force and maintain readiness for military duty.”
Kim’s office stated in a press release that in the post-9/11 period, more than 20% of guardsmen and reservists have been non-deployable and another 15% removed from duty while deployed thanks to dental problems.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Courtney Tutela has seen the issue firsthand, watching fellow reservists be unable to go TDY or deploy because of dental issues. And even when funds are not a problem, simply accessing on-base dental care can be tricky, she said, unless on orders.
“So this bill is just awesome,” Tutela said. “I think it would afford every reserve member just the peace of mind that they don’t have to try to pay for dental work themselves or go through civilian providers.”
Kelly, a major general in the Mississippi National Guard, has a personal take on what it’s like to serve as a guardsmen or reservist without full dental coverage. He has served 36 years, including a stint in Desert Storm and multiple deployments to Iraq since 9/11.
“Dental care is not just a financial burden or health issue for Guard families,” he wrote in an email. “Dental problems can prevent service members from being able to deploy or go to certain trainings, which impacts their unit’s readiness to protect our nation both at home and abroad.”Read comments