CHICAGO (CBS) — They served our country honorably, but many veterans suffer with rotting, painful teeth and no access to dental care.

Now a bill aims to end that dilemma by expanding care through the VA. But Morning Insider Tim McNicholas shows us why that bill faces an uphill battle.

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“Went in December 16th of 1975 and got out on January 14th of 1980.”

Charles Florin is proud his service. One thing he wasn’t so proud of…his smile.

“I’ve never been able to afford the insurance.” Florin said. “So therefore, my teeth rotted off, broke out, all kinds of problems there.”

The Navy veteran from south suburban Harvey gets health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.  But the VA only provides dental work to veterans who meet specific criteria, like former prisoners of war or veterans with certain disabilities. Only 15% of veterans enrolled in the VA’s healthcare program qualify for comprehensive dental coverage.

“Well, I think it oughta be for everybody that served our country.”

Judith Bell agrees. The South Sider put off new dentures and extractions of her lower teeth for years because she didn’t qualify.

“I am so proud to be a U.S. army veteran,” Bell said. “I thought that if they’re servicing the veterans, you would think that the whole body would be taken care of.”

The bill introduced in D.C. this year would expand dental care to all veterans in the VA healthcare system. It has the support of a nonprofit in the Chicago suburbs called the Veterans Smile Program which funds dental care for veterans.

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“We have veterans pulling their own teeth out with pliers across this country because they simply cannot afford the dental care themselves,” said Patricia DeVore, President of Veterans Smile Program.

But so far, the bill has nowhere near the support it needs to pass…and similar bills fell short in the past. Last year, a VA representative said it can’t be done.

“We don’t have the resources from a capacity perspective and we don’t have the resources from a funding perspective.”

Dr. Maria Llorente, Deputy to the Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Patient Care Services, Veterans Health Administration, at a 2020 hearing.

“What does this say about our country that we cannot take better care of out veterans,” Llorente asked.

Thanks to DeVore’s Veterans Smiles Program, both Florin and Bell now have one more thing to be proud of.

“Means the world to me….” Florin said.

A VA spokesperson says, as of October 1, 2021, 1.38 million of the more than 9 million enrolled Veterans are eligible for comprehensive dental care. You can find the criteria on the VA Dental Care site.

A VA spokesperson said the VA “would like all Veterans to have access to good oral healthcare; however, VA is limited to providing dental benefits to those Veterans who meet certain eligibility criteria. Veterans who do not meet these criteria may obtain dental care through the VA Dental Insurance Program (VADIP). Veterans enrolled in VA health care, and beneficiaries of the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the VA (CHAMPVA), can select one of the discounted insurance plans offered by Delta Dental or MetLife.”

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Click here for more information on how to help the Veterans Smile program or go to VetsSmile.org/donate.

CBS 2 Chicago Staff