NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. — A local nonprofit providing free, low-cost dental services to veterans said it is now banding together, vowing to come back “stronger than ever” after abruptly closing its doors in June. Patients – many of whom are undergoing treatment in months-long procedures – have been told they should look elsewhere.
The update comes after the I-Team reported that New Port Richey-based SmileFaith was turning away veterans after they ran out of money to support the program.
BACK COVER: Local nonprofit no longer offers free dental care to veterans
Darrell McSweeney contacted the I-Team after having his teeth pulled in anticipation of dental implant surgery. He now fears that will never happen.
McSweeney joined the Navy at age 17 and served aboard the USS Saratoga.
Like most veterans, he is not eligible for dental care through the VA.
In order to receive dental benefits, veterans must meet one of these criteria:
- Have a service-related dental problem
- to have been a prisoner of war,
- Being 100% disabled because of their service.
This means that less than 10% of veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system are eligible.
“I had a lot of issues with calcium intake and things like that and ended up losing it – I had a lot of bad teeth,” McSweeney said.
Needing dental treatment, he told the I-Team how he came across an ABC Action News video on SmileFaith while on Facebook. The show featured the non-profit organization SmileFaith, in New Port Richey, providing free and low-cost dental care to veterans.
“It’s too good to be true,” McSweeney said. “And when I went there, just like the article said, they said they were going to be able to do the dental work that I needed, there would be very little cost to me, just a few out-of-pocket expenses that “They’d have to pay for it themselves. But otherwise, all the dental surgery, all the implants, everything was going to be free. I’m like, wow, that’s actually what he said he was going to do.”
Since SmileFaith launched its clinic in 2018, the nonprofit told I-Team that 3,255 veterans have received $2.9 million in free dental care.
“They did a very, very good job. They did x-rays, pulled a lot of teeth, and prepped me for implants. And that was my goal. I had to pay a little money up front for the partial procedures and a few x-rays out of pocket, and everything else was supposed to be covered for the implants,” McSweeney said.
In May, he received an email from SmileFaith that read, “I will keep in touch with you as we move forward with choosing implant candidates for each event. Please be patient as this may take several months.
A few days later, in a follow-up email, Sweeney was informed, “This process could take several years.”
Then, in June, “I got an email saying sorry, you know, due to COVID and lack of donations, we’re closing the program,” McSweeney said.
The veteran told I-Team that the first thought that came to mind was, “How am I going to be able to eat with just one tooth? Because I have a molar left in my back.”
“They prepared me 100% for the implants,” McSweeney said. “To go through all that pain to not do it? No, I never would have expected that.”
McSweeney is one of 194 veterans awaiting implants. This does not include the additional 500 veterans who applied for the program.
In the email sent to anyone receiving care that the program was closed, SmileFaith gave veterans two options: check out Goggle’s free or low-cost dental clinics in their area or call a number leading to the National Association for Medical & Dental.
The I-Team discovered that Tom Lane, founder and president of SmileFaith, is also president of the National Association for Medical & Dental.
“I had no idea. It basically said, here, call this number, the email said, make sure you tell them you’re sent by SmileFaith. So I thought, to be honest with you , I thought it was another program, just like their program was. Saying, okay, we’re going to help you, we’re going to follow what they started,” McSweeney said. “They wanted to sell me insurance in order to do the work that someone had already started.”
McSweeney told I-Team he still doesn’t understand what happened.
“To be disappointed like that, of all the mountains of things that I went through in the last year, it was — it was hard. Really hard,” McSweeney said, wiping away tears. “Especially not knowing where to turn.”
SmileFaith’s vice president of operations, Mike O’Carroll, told the I-Team that, unlike the email sent to patients, they are not “closed” but on “break”.
“We’re revamping the SmileFaith Foundation, and our veterans care because we want to be stronger than ever,” O’Carroll said. “The finances were just not there to continue the program because we would like it to continue.”
He said expensive care quickly absorbed donations and funding, including a PPP loan SmileFaith received in 2020 for $31,700.
“Our main funding came from the benevolence of the founder, Tom Lane, and his company. They were taking over month after month to fund the program,” O’Carroll said.
O’Carroll and Lane are veterans themselves.
“We have big hearts and have done our best to help everyone in need,” O’Carroll said.
The I-Team asked if the restart of SmileFaith’s veterans program would come with more of a guarantee that the nonprofit sees care through — before taking on new patients, like this was the case here.
“Yes,” O’Carroll said. “We want to be able to accommodate the special needs of these people and take them in and follow them until that need is met and done before we start taking everyone.”
The details and timeline surrounding a reboot are still unclear.
When asked what happens to veterans who are waiting for their full care and are left in limbo, O’Carroll said, “We’ve told all the veterans, underserved veterans, who have done part of SmileFaith, that we did everything we could do,” and mentioned referrals to other clinics, as well as dental insurance.
He said veterans of the implant program are a different story.
“We’re not giving up on these veterans at all,” O’Carroll said.
McSweeney is not convinced.
“They should never have let me hang alone. Not at all,” McSweeney said. “And just releasing me after they couldn’t do it anymore was wrong. 100% wrong.”
SmileFaith reports that 22 veterans will have their crowns placed on August 25-26.
“We don’t abandon our veterans. I hope they don’t give up on us,” O’Carroll said.
Stand up to help
After seeing the I-Team story on SmileFaith, Congressman Gus Bilirakis reached out and promised to do more to help ailing veterans.
“There are people in the community who have already contacted me and they want to make sure they get the treatment. It’s so important,” he said.
The U.S. Representative is known for prioritizing issues that affect veterans.
“I attack this problem in so many different ways. Because I know how important it is,” Bilirakis said, mentioning the requirements to receive care through the VA. “It’s very narrow, as far as qualifications go.”
Bilirakis said qualifications need to be expanded.
“I have a bill that I have filed for the last two years to do this. First of all, it will prove how much money the government would save, the VA would save if they took care of this oral health . “
The Veterinary Care Act, he said, would focus on veterans with chronic illnesses.
“If you can take care of your oral health, first of all, you will be healthier overall in your lifetime. But also, it will save the government money,” Bilirakis said. “Preventive health is the key.
The congressman said he was grateful to the nonprofits that stepped up to fill the care gap.
“There has to be accountability, and then we have to make sure the dentist follows through,” he said. “We owe it to our veterans, our true American heroes, to take care of them.”
Bilirakis said if a veteran has emergency dental needs and doesn’t have the money to cover the cost, he can contact his office at 727-232-2921. He said they were in contact with a network of dentists in the Tampa Bay area who volunteered to help.
Veterans can also call his office to get an appointment for “Stars, Stripes and Smiles Day of Service” for free dental procedures on Nov. 4.
Injured Veterans Relief Fund also reached out to the I-Team, encouraging veterans affected by the shutdown to call them – to see what they can do to help. To find out if you qualify for assistance through this particular nonprofit, visit their website. Phone number: 561-855-4207
This story came from a tip. If you would like the I-Team to investigate something, email [email protected] or call 813-354-2837.