Volunteer docs, dentists fill holes in vet coverage
Ever since Ros Whiting left the Army in 1998, he's lived with holes in his mouth, the result of botched attempts to remove wisdom teeth.
When one of the teeth cracked in 2000, he dug out the pieces with a clamp. He excavated fragments of another with needle-nose pliers.
"They worked just fine," he told me.
But really, they didn't: A jagged shard remains, and his gum has started to grow over it.
After the Army, Whiting served in the Maryland National Guard and held a number of jobs: delivering flowers, delivering pizza, doing construction work. Some provided dental insurance, but his portion of the bill always seemed too much.
He kept living with the holes, chewing children's aspirin to dull the pain.
Then earlier this month, Whiting decided to address the problem. He moved to Norfolk from the Washington area and tried the Hampton VA Medical Center.
Without firm answers, he next showed up at the Health Fair for Veterans in Chesapeake, looking for someone to help him navigate the VA paperwork.
"I'm always optimistic," Whiting, 39, said as he waited his turn. "You never know."
Around him in the lobby and farther back in the Lifestyle Center on the Chesapeake Regional Medical Center campus, an army of volunteers wearing name tags and red ribbons readied piles of clipboards and rows of tables. Eager representatives set up posters and brochures for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, Tidewater Community College and others.
Beyond them, a triage area awaited, equipped with scales and blood pressure stations. A row of makeshift, white-partitioned exam rooms lined the back wall, labeled by specialty: dental, dermatology, women's health and more.
Soon, the veterans would arrive, each with a volunteer to escort them from station to station.
Volunteer physicians would dole out screenings, advice and referrals to other doctors, who likely would be able see the veterans within weeks, said retired Army Col. Jim Ireland.
"You do that in the VA," he said, "it could be months."
Ireland and Dr. Juan Montero II, the founder and president of Montero Medical Missions, created the quarterly veterans health fairs in fall 2012.
Their nonprofit primarily focuses on connecting expatriate health professionals in the United States with medical missions to their native countries, particularly the Philippines, where Montero was born.
But the men were inspired to action by a letter, signed by Virginia's health commissioner and its commissioner of veterans services. The letter reminded the state's doctors that veterans may be coming to them for medical care outside the VA system.
"The VA does not take care of veterans as much as the civilian population thinks," Ireland said. "So we said we could start something that would help veterans bridge that gap and provide some assistance to people that don't have it right now."
A total of around 250 veterans have attended the fairs -- sometimes they're outnumbered by the volunteers. Most are eligible for medical treatment at a VA facility but have encountered some kind of snag.
Some, like Whiting, need help navigating the complex benefits system.
Many come for dental care. Eye care and audiology also are popular.
Ernest Gibbs of Virginia Beach signed up for several consults, checking off what he couldn't get from the VA.
"Dental, they won't do. Vision, they won't do," he said, peering out below a baseball cap that said "I love Jesus." "I need a chiropractor -- they won't pay for that."
Gibbs, 63, served in the Army from 1970 to 1982, including in Vietnam. He wanted to replace ill-fitting dentures and see a chiropractor about his back.
He also wanted to see whether he needed a hearing aid -- he hadn't had a hearing test at the VA in years -- and to get a mole on his face removed. Gibbs placed a request with the VA months ago, he said, but he was still waiting.
His escort, a bald, goateed 39-year-old man named Tom Delio, was sympathetic.
He retired from the Navy in 2012 after 20 years and is studying health care administration. His stepfather was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and Delio felt familiar with VA headaches.
"For lack of a better term, it disgusts me that these are necessary," he said, referring to the fair.
After Gibbs and Delio blended into the chattering crowd, I found Whiting.
He couldn't quite believe his fortune.
"They said they have some voucher where they will do any dental work you need for $15," he said. "This one workshop may actually have the solution to my problem, and hopefully it will have something for everyone who shows up."
He broke into a wide grin: "Fifteen dollars!"