A veteran program with bite: New dental care at Zufall in Morristown
By Marion Filler
military veteran Iris Cruz could have been the happiest person in Morristown Zufall Health Center Friday.
“I love it here,” she said through her mask. “I got my smile back.”
Many other veterans may also soon be smiling thanks to VETsmile. This is a pilot program designed to help veterans who cannot afford dental care, and all nine Zufall clinics in New Jersey are ready to help.
Although veterans were always welcome at Zufall, many were unaware of the services.
“I simply cannot overestimate the value the VETsmile program will bring to the quality of life of the thousands of veterans it will serve,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), a Navy veteran who spoke at Zufall’s ceremony announcing the deployment.
Veterans’ hospitals provide medical care, but dental care is limited to people with combat-related injuries. That only covers about 8% of veterans in the system, according to Sherrill. Many veterans who need dental care simply cannot afford it, she said.
Now the Veterans Administration will refer them to Zufall, a big step in expanding dental care.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.) on the importance of dental care for veterans; video by Marion Filler for MorristownGreen.com:
Sherrill was joined at the launch of VETsmile by representatives from the VA, the American Dental Association, Delta Dental, and the office of Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th Dist.), as well as veterans who have already benefited from the program.
dr. Roshni Ghoshexecutive director of the Center for Care and Patient Innovation (CCPI), which works with VETsmiles, refers veterans to dental facilities in their own communities.
She explained that CCPI is on a five-year trial period to prove its effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. If successful, it will continue for another five years and, she hopes, will become permanent.
“We are focused on creating a network of dental care for all of our veterans. We want to help them all – and that’s nationwide,” Ghosh said.
“The model we’ve been able to create in New York and New Jersey working with universities and federally accredited health centers has been remarkable,” she said.
Participating providers include Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, NYU College of Dentistry, Delta Dental and now, Zufall Health Centers.
“Thank you, Zufall, for trusting us,” Ghosh said.
THE RISE OF ‘THE CLINIC’
A tour of the center at the corner of Washington Street and Atno Avenue revealed a wing with four treatment rooms and a lab.
“Sometimes the medical issues are related to the fact that they (veterans) don’t have teeth or they have sore teeth,” Dr. Antonella Maiettadentist at Zufall in Morristown.
“It prevents them from eating certain foods or eating at all. It affects them systemically,” she said, emphasizing that dental hygiene and preventative care are essential for good health.
In 1990, after ending his practice in urology, Dr. Robert Zufall and his wife Katherine opened a small community clinic in Dover. She ran the office and it treated patients who were mostly poor and from immigrant families. Their dedication encouraged volunteers to join and resulted in a team of doctors, dentists and staff to run the facility.
Almost instantly, the once-a-week clinic attracted a patient base. However, despite private and public support, financing “La Clinica” has been difficult. In 2004, its survival was ensured by designation as a Federally Qualified Health Center and in 2006, was renamed to honor the Zufalls.
Thirty years have passed. The nonprofit health center has expanded to nine locations in seven counties and serves 40,000 people. About 20% of its funding comes from the federal government. The rest is paid for by patients, health insurance, and larger grants and donations.
Now in the late 90s, Dr. Zufall resides in an assisted living facility in Denville and remains a member of the center’s board of directors.
“He was just zooming with us last week. He’s very alert, very lively and knows what’s going on here,” the chairman of the board said. William Shulerwho met the Zufalls when he was 12 years old.