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By Anne Blythe
As a chilly wind whipped tiny American flags lining the walkway to the Veterans Affairs Health Care Center in Greenville early Friday afternoon, dozens of people from eastern North Carolina gathered under a nearby white tent.
They came together several days before Veterans Day to celebrate the service of 22 World War II veterans in a state where more than 730,000 people who served in the military live.
Inside the health care facility about a hundred yards away, Eric Kern, a Navy veteran, worked to provide a service and benefit that many veterans say can be one of the most difficult to qualify for — dental care.
Veterans can get medical care through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, but dental care is not a benefit offered to all.
To qualify for the full benefit, veterans have to be 100 percent disabled, or been a prisoner of war, or be able to connect their dental condition to their service.
Benefits also are available to veterans who are 60 percent disabled and unemployable.
Claude Campbell, an Army veteran who lives in Vanceboro now, said Friday after the ceremony that he has heard grumblings from veterans over the years about the difficulties of not getting dental benefits from the VA.
“I’ve heard some guys talking about it,” said Campbell, a 64-year-old who does not receive VA dental benefits after 10 years in the Army. “I understand why they can’t do it for everyone.”
Partnering with ECU
The dental clinic at the Greenville VA health care center has completed 3,566 appointments for veterans this year.
“We have right now many more veterans eligible for care than we can see here,” Kern said.
Kern and the three other dentists who work with him at the Greenville VA center are developing a plan with the East Carolina University dental school that could extend care to even more veterans.
Several weeks ago, a group interested in bringing that partnership to fruition met for a roundtable discussion in the conference room of the two-story 116,000-square-foot center where veterans can get a range of health care needs met.
Robert Tempel Jr., a retired Army major general and associate dean for extramural clinical practices at the ECU dental school, has been in on those discussions.
Such a collaboration would add the ECU dental clinic to the list of community care providers that Kern and other VA dentists can send veterans to under the MISSION Act.
Passed by Congress in 2018 and signed into law by President Donald Trump, the law allows veterans to seek care in their community under VA benefits if there is a long wait, if their VA care provider refers them or if that service is not available at the VA center closest to them.
A joint project with ECU also could offer another avenue for veterans in eastern North Carolina ineligible for VA dental benefits to receive care at a reduced rate at the university’s main clinic on campus or at various clinic sites across the state, Tempel told Kern in an email last week.
Kern talked about the potential for the venture as he provided a tour of the Greenville VA center clinic.
Shiny, new clinic
Some of the features would be rare in a private practice office.
In one room, there is a special mechanical lift to help get a veteran from a wheelchair into a dental chair.
Kern walked up to the sink in one exam room and pressed his knee against the cabinet below it, showing how he can turn the water on without touching the faucet to keep his hands free from potential contamination.
There also are blood pressure monitors in one exam room.
Because the clinic is in the center, it is held to hospital standards, Kern said, explaining the more stringent equipment sterilization and lab standards.
All equipment is washed and sterilized after each patient, then wrapped and put in a special temperature-monitored room. At least once, the temperature monitor went off inside the room, the alarm sounded and all the equipment inside had to be rewashed and resterilized.
Kern entered the Navy after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh dental school and doing his residency at a VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia. While there he met many veterans with interesting stories and signed up with the Navy for a three and a half year stint.
He was in private practice after that, worked as an assistant professor at his alma mater, and was the director of dental services at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, before coming to North Carolina to lead the VA clinic in 2014.
“It’s a nice, brand new, clean facility,” Kern said walking through the halls.
Most of the oral health issues that Kern and his colleagues see at the eight-room clinic are cavities. The two hygienists who work there do the cleanings and other preventive care.
The clinic is not equipped to take on cases of impacted wisdom teeth or other oral surgeries.
“Anything that would require sedation, we don’t do here,” Kern said.
Those types of cases could be referred to the ECU clinic if the partnership gets the go-ahead.
Tempel has been in contact already with an ECU student about setting up an oral hygiene informational display at the VA to educate veterans and patients on proper hygiene and nutrition.
Stepping it up
Kern and his colleagues have taken steps on their end to move that initiative along. They recently started the application process to become volunteer adjunct faculty members, trying to get a post that would give them the leeway to oversee dental school students at the VA clinic or at the campus clinic.
“I also would highlight as an adjunct faculty you will be helping educate our students, but also staying on top of the latest advances in science the resources of ECU at your disposal,” Tempel wrote in an email to Kern. “We greatly appreciate the teamwork between the VA and ECU, we love taking care of veterans, and this teamwork is a model for others.”
Kern said the timeline for the teamwork proposed is ambiguous, but he hopes it can be worked out in the coming year.
Until then, Kern will continue the dental work that inspires him.
“I like to help people,” Kern said. “I like the results I see. It’s nice to see people smile.”