- Associated Press - Sunday, June 4, 2017

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - David Eldrich’s chewing teeth don’t work properly.

The U.S. Army veteran from Wellston tried to ignore it - he doesn’t have dental insurance - but “constantly” chewing the insides of his cheeks has taken a real bite out of enjoying a meal, he said.

“Eating time is a painful time,” said Eldrich, 69.

But this month Eldrich reclined in a dental chair, destined for several crowns, partial dentures and a tooth removal - at no cost to him.

The lack of dental care for U.S. military veterans is jaw-dropping, said a chorus of local dentists, University of Michigan School of Dentistry students and Northwest Michigan Health Services’ administrators, who are filling that void with the Victors for Veterans program.

The Record-Eagle (https://bit.ly/2rSauYc ) reports that the program - a local satellite of the Wolverine Patriot Project run by U-M students - was ignited by these findings: That of the estimated 723,000 veterans who live in Michigan, most do not qualify for dental benefits; the Veterans Administration’s Dental Insurance Program is not enrolling any new patients; and the nearest dental clinic is in Saginaw, leaving many northern Michigan veterans choosing to go without care.

“We’ve had multiple patients in pain - a lot have not been to the dentist in a long time, because there’s no way to pay for it,” said Northwest Michigan Health Services Dental Outreach Coordinator Jen Kerns. “Some come back with PTSD and are unable to work, or are homeless … it’s sad that they’ve fought (for) our country and this is how they’re taken care of.”

Victors for Veterans plans to hold 10 more clinics over the next year, providing everything from routine cleanings to restorations and beyond.

“Our patriotism runs deep,” said Traverse City dentist Phillip Yancho. “It’s an underserved part of our population and we need to do more.”

Yancho and dentist Bill Lee - also U-M grads - started holding clinics last year, and recently received a 2017 Public Service Award from the Michigan Dental Association for getting 38 veterans almost $250,000 in free dentistry last year.

Yancho got involved because of his son - Joe is a dental student who is heading into the U.S. Navy after he graduates this year. Lee, who works in a tribal clinic in Suttons Bay, is also working with his daughter, Cassie. All of the students come from U-M, and get a lot out of their service.

“It’s one of the largest overlooked and underserved parts of our community,” said Joe Yancho, who coordinates the student side of the program. “They’ve done so much … and to give them a nice smile … it’s hard to put that into words.”

Meredith Clark, who is also destined for Army service after she graduates, worked with Eldrich and chatted with him about her future military service.

“You can’t just Google what life will really be like in the Army … and who better to ask than someone who has been there?” she said.

The program is currently at capacity for the year, and those that they help are very appreciative, Kerns said.

“I’ve seen crying, hugging … everyone is super-appreciative,” Kerns said. “They are very grateful.”

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Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, https://www.record-eagle.com

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