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State lawmakers push bill to provide free dental care for veterans

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

State Assemblyman David DiPietro unveiled propsed legislation Thursday that, if passed, would result in free dental coverage for all military veterans living in New York State.

DiPietro's bill would set aside an initial $5 million to create dental insurance which would help veterans with coverage not reimbursed by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Currently, it was explained, only veterans deemed at least 70 percent disabled are eligible for full dental care coverage through the VA.

"I'm shocked this isn't already a service in place," said DiPietro, whose news conference quickly took on a partisan tone, during which he suggested Democrats in the Legislature have blocked such legislation, instead "focusing on extending privileges and services to illegal aliens and criminals."

DiPietro, an East Aurora-based Republican, then quoted Ronald Reagan while stating veterans deserve free dental care.

"Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost. It imposes a burden, and just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we in a less final, less heroic way be willing to give of ourselves," he said, recalling the late president's words. "Reagan's immortal words are the reason why this legislation must be passed."

His proposal is not a simple free giveaway to all veterans. Any receiving similar or better care through private insurers would not be eligible for state-funded coverage. Veterans classified as being 50 percent disabled or less would face a co-payment to be calculated based on the individual's income.

There to support DiPietro's bill was State Senator Robert Ortt, who served in Afghanistan, and is pushing similar legislation in the Senate. They were surrounded by numerous veterans who also offered their words of support for the bill. Santos Lopez is with Orange County Choppers, the motorcycle company which worked with DiPietro on a project to help bring a traveling Vietnam Wall to a permanent home in East Aurora. He recalled a conversation held with DiPietro during which he brought up veteran dental care coverage, or in many cases a lack of it.

"I said 'hey Dave, why don't we do something about this?' And he goes, 'you guys don't get dental? How come?'" Lopez said. "I said 'just because... we don't.' The system's been like that forever."

Those who emphasize the importance of good dental care and dental health point out that an oral infection can find its way into the patient's bloodstream and put that person at risk for other health complications elsewhere in the body. There is also the importance of having a healthy-looking mouth when out seeking a job.

Stephen McCloskey, one of the veterans in attendance, said he was recently hit with a $1,000 dental bill. That, he told the room, puts families like his in a greater sense of financial stress as they continue a transition into civilian life.

"Part of that struggle is financial. If they're dealing with a thousand-dollar dental bill, that financial is either their gas, or their electric, or their water, or food on the table," McCloskey said. "When you're looking at a dental (legislative) bill for veterans itself, it makes that transition ten times to a thousand times smoother to actually get back in the workforce."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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