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A Vet In Need Of Major Dentistry

“I spent a total of 20-plus years serving my country honorably, and I remember when I signed up, I received signed paperwork stating that in return for my service to my country, upon retirement I would have full medical and dental for life for myself and family. We know that in recent years, these benefits that were once promised to the vets for their service were taken away by our leaders in Washington. And many of us are left to suffer.” -Steve Scobey, master sergeant USAF (ret.)

There is something seriously amiss with a system – a nation – that breaks promises to those who risk their lives for their country.

Steve Scobey, 64, is a decorated Air Force flight engineer with more than 20 years of active service, 10 more of reserve duty. His honorable service to his country, including six years flying with the presidential detail for the Carter administration, was his promise fulfilled.

But promises made to him when, at 19, during the Vietnam War, he joined the Air Force, are much like his few remaining teeth: broken and painful.

The crux of the government “bait and switch” on military retirees is that after 1956, the government made a subtle but profound change in the law. It switched the word shall to the word may “be given medical and dental care in any facility of any uniformed service.” And added, “subject to the availability of space and facilities and the capabilities of the medical and dental staff.”

The “bait” was recruiters still were promising full medical and dental care for life – even on posters – up until 1991. The “switch” was base closings, leaving thousands of retirees without a medical facility, suddenly changing to a co-pay medical insurance system, first Champus then TRICARE then Medicare, and cutting back doctors so that “availability and capabilities” for retirees were next to nil.

Free medical care for life came with a hidden price tag.

Mind you, Scobey doesn’t bash the Air Force, his military experience or the medical care he’s received. During his active service, he had few complaints. His children’s teeth also were well treated in those days. But clearly some procedures he received led to his oral health problems today.

“I spent my first years of military service being taken care of by U.S. Air Force dentists during my deployments to Guam and Okinawa during support of Vietnam,” recalls Steve. “During that time I had multiple fillings and root canals, four wisdom teeth removed for impaction, a temporary cap removed and permanent cap installed.” Later though, what had been poorly done, another dentist had to try to undo. “I had a mouthful of bad teeth that were overfilled, very little tooth to support the fillings, and they started breaking off.”

Scobey is experiencing (no doubt with many others) the pointing finger of government bureaucracy, spending his days tracking one lead or another at every military dental clinic on Oahu, including the VA, which, he says, will only treat him if he’s 80 percent disabled. No “availability” or “capability”?

Finding someone to simply pull his teeth is a maddening metaphor for accessing health care promised him long ago – like pulling teeth.

Of his 22 remaining teeth, only 10 aren’t broken off, with three “close to failing.” He has a full-blown infection in his front teeth for which he’s on penicillin prescribed by his Air Force doctor, who’s very concerned about his health risks. (Studies suggest that oral health is related to serious conditions like heart disease.) Think of the worst toothache you’ve ever had and multiply that by 22 – pain so bad medicine doesn’t faze it. Add to that the runaround he gets trying to find anyone, military or civilian, to pull his health-threatening teeth so he can get dentures. No civilian oral surgeon (he’s called them all) will accept his dental plan and want up to $14,000 up front, an amount he just doesn’t have, given his income. He’s in a maddening “Catch 22.”

It’s really all about money, which has been slashed from military programs to compensate for other pet needs. Military retirees comprise a relatively small number – not a powerful constituency. But consider Scobey’s story and try to imagine the government-run “affordable” health care program rolling out this month. It’s not only expected to break the nation’s bank, but the law has more than 33,000 mostly unread words. Beware of “innocent” little verbs like “may” and “shall.” Congress, which President Obama exempted from the law, passed it before they read it. Shame on them for the promises they tend to always break – especially when it comes to our service men and women.

It’s urgent that Scobey gets dental care. An account is set up to take donations for him, and any help would be deeply appreciated. Call 321-5538 if you want to help Scobey, and/or contact John Towles at U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s office to speak up on Scobey’s behalf: 541-1986.