One of ADA President Cesar R. Sabates' fondest childhood memories is an experience he had with a U.S. service member when he was 7 years old.
"I was a child of Castro-era Cuba," said Dr. Sabates during his opening remarks to about 60 attendees of the inaugural Give Veterans A Smile Summit at ADA Headquarters in Chicago. "In 1967, my parents, four siblings and I left our home in Camaguey and boarded a freedom flight to the United States. I was terrified during the trip, but shortly after landing in Miami, a U.S. military officer handed me a piece of candy. It was a generous, warm welcome and a sign that things were going to be OK."
Whether through major acts of courage or simple acts of kindness, veterans have protected Americans' rights and defended their freedoms, Dr. Sabates continued.
"Yet, millions of U.S. veterans are going without much-needed, essential oral health care," Dr. Sabates said. "Today, the power of our community - defined by caring, kindness, and a willingness to go the extra mile - is on full display as we gather to broaden our positive impact, work together on solutions and elevate our talents to improve the health and well-being of our nation's veterans."
Dr. Sabates' introduction to the day-and-a-half summit on May 5 and 6 served as a kickoff to prioritize the delivery and access to care for veterans across the county.
The objectives for the summit were clear: to gather, collaborate and learn. The discussion items included gathering data for a national database of charitable veterans' oral health care programs; facilitating the sharing of best practices among attendees as well as opportunities and challenges; stressing the importance of collaboration between organizations/programs that provide care to veterans; and ultimately determining whether there is a productive role for the ADA in ongoing access to care efforts for veterans.
Representatives from the NYU College of Dentistry, University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Dental Lifeline Network, VA Center for Care and Payment Innovation, American Institute of Dental Public Health, Everyone for Veterans, Veteran's Smile Initiative, the Central Arizona Dental Society Foundation and Aspen Dental were among the participants of the summit.
They all echoed the same message of why they are committed to the cause: 85%, or about 7.8 million veterans enrolled in the Veterans Affairs health care system, are ineligible for VA dental benefits. Generally, in order to qualify for dental services, veterans must either have a dental issue that is service-connected or qualify based on narrow criteria - for example, the veteran is a former prisoner of war, the veteran has a service-connected disability rated as total, or treatment is medically necessary in preparation for hospital admission or for a veteran otherwise receiving VA care or services or reasonably necessary to complete dental care that began while the veteran was receiving hospital care.
"We've been talking about collaboration," said Dan Fridh, D.D.S., representing the International College of Dentists, one of the summit's sponsors. "That's what this whole meeting is about."
Other sponsors of the summit included Colgate, Henry Schein, the Dental Society of Chester County & Delaware County (Pennsylvania), the New York State Dental Society and the 4th District of the ADA. Gary Oyster, D.D.S., who serves on the ADA Board of Trustees as the trustee for the 16th District, was a contributor to the summit.
Carol Gomez Summerhays, D.D.S., a veteran herself and past ADA president, was asked by past ADA President Daniel J. Klemmedson, D.D.S., M.D., to serve as the chair of the newly formed Give Veterans A Smile Advisory Committee.
In her remarks to the crowd, Dr. Summerhays quoted President John F. Kennedy: "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them."
Dr. Summerhays said that on top of connecting people to create an umbrella of organizations trying different ways to focus on veterans' care, the ADA wants to see if a similar approach to the Association's 20-year-old signature access to care program, Give Kids A Smile, would be feasible.
The Give Kids A Smile program provides underserved children with free oral health care. Each year, approximately 6,500 dentists and 30,000 dental team members volunteer at local GKAS events to provide free oral health education, screenings, preventive and restorative treatment to over 300,000 children.
At the end of the summit, Randall McLemore, zone general manager at Henry Schein, said that his company - a key sponsor of Give Kids A Smile - supported the idea of a coordinated Give Veterans A Smile program dedicated to helping connect veterans across the country to a dental home.
Felisha Dutt, a third-year student at the NYU College of Dentistry, delivered a presentation on personal stories related to care recipients through her school's initiative, Veterans Oral Care Access Resource - VOCARE - as part of the VA's VETSmile pilot program.
She said that the most fulfilling experience she has had so far is treating veterans at the college and making a connection with them.
"It solidifies why I got into dentistry," Ms. Dutt said.
At the conclusion of the summit, Dr. Sabates said its participants should know that the collaboration and networking did not end there, but that the summit is just one step toward ongoing support and advocacy in making optimal oral health a reality for more of the nation's veterans.
"This summit has been a great success, and it won't be the last, I give my word," Dr. Sabates said as he concluded the event.