NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. — A local nonprofit providing free and low-cost dental services to veterans said it's now regrouping, promising to come back "stronger than ever" after abruptly closing its doors in June. Patients — many mid-treatment in months-long procedures — were told they'd have to look elsewhere.
Darrell McSweeney contacted the I-Team after having teeth pulled in anticipation of dental implant surgery. He now fears it may never happen.
McSweeney joined the Navy at 17 and served aboard the USS Saratoga.
Like most veterans, he doesn't qualify 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
- Have been a prisoner of war,
- Be 100% disabled as a result of their service.
That means fewer than 10% of veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system qualify.
"I had a lot of problems with calcium intake and things like that and wound up losing — having a lot of bad teeth," McSweeney said.
In need of dental care, he told the I-Team how he came across an ABC Action News video on SmileFaith while on Facebook. The broadcast featured the nonprofit SmileFaith, in New Port Richey, offering free and low-cost dental care for veterans.
- Tampa Bay non-profit provides free dental care for veterans
- Smile Faith Dental gives free and low-cost dental care to veterans
- Non-profit dental clinic in New Port Richey gives veterans dental implants
“This is too good to be true," McSweeney said. "And when I went up there, exactly like the article said, they said they were going to be able to do the dental work I needed, there would be very little charge to me, just some out-of-pocket expenses that they would have to pay themselves. But otherwise, all the dental surgery, all of the implants, everything was going to be free of charge. I’m like, wow, this is actually what it said it was going to do.”
Since SmileFaith launched its clinic in 2018, the nonprofit told the I-Team that 3,255 veterans received $2.9 million worth of free dental care.
“They did a really, really good job. They did X-rays, they pulled a lot of teeth, and they got me prepared for implants. And that was my goal. I had to pay a little bit of money upfront for the partial and a couple of the X-ray procedures 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 said, "I will keep in contact with you as we move forward in choosing implant candidates for each event. Please be patient as this could take several months."
A few days later, in a follow-up email, Sweeney was told, "This process could take up to several years."
Then, in June, “I received an email saying sorry, you know, because of COVID and lack of donations, we are closing the program," McSweeney said.
The veteran told the I-Team that the first thought that went through his mind was, “How am I going to eat with one tooth? Because I have one molar left in the back."
“They prepared me 100% for the implants," McSweeney said. "To go through all of that pain to just not have it done? No, I would have never expected that.”
McSweeney is one of 194 veterans waiting for implants. That doesn't include 500 more veterans who have requested participation in the program.
In the email that went out to anyone receiving care that the program was closed, SmileFaith gave veterans two options — to Goggle free or low-cost dental clinics in their area or call a number that led to the National Association for Medical & Dental.
The I-Team found 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 being 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 up with what they started," McSweeney said. "They wanted to sell me insurance in order to get the work done that somebody already started.”
McSweeney told the I-Team he still doesn't understand what happened.
"To be let down like this, of all of the mountains of things I’ve gone through the past year, was — it was rough. Really rough," McSweeney said, wiping away tears. "Especially not knowing where to turn to."
SmileFaith Vice President of Operations Mike O'Carroll told the I-Team, unlike the email that went out to patients stated, they are not "closed" but on "pause."
“We are in the process of reorganizing SmileFaith Foundation, and our veterans care because we want to be stronger than ever before," O'Carroll said. "The finances were just not there to continue the program as we would want it continued.”
He said expensive care quickly ate up donations and funding, including a PPP loan SmileFaith received in 2020 for $31,700.
“Our primary funding was through the benevolence of the founder, Tom Lane, and his corporation. They were taking up the slack month-by-month to fund the program," O'Carroll said.
O'Carroll and Lane are veterans themselves.
"We have big hearts, and we tried our best to help everybody with the need," O'Carroll said.
The I-Team asked if the restart of SmileFaith's veteran's program would come with more of a guarantee the nonprofit would see the care through to the end — before taking on new patients, as was the case here.
"Yes," O'Carroll said. "We want to be able to take on these people’s special needs and take them and follow them out until that need is fulfilled and done before we start taking on everybody else.”
Details and timing surrounding a restart are still unclear.
When asked what happens to the veterans who are waiting to receive their full care and are left in limbo, O'Caroll said, "We have told every veteran, under-served veteran, that has been a part of SmileFaith, that we’ve done all we can do," and mentioned referrals to other clinics, as well as the dental insurance.
He said veterans in the implant program are a different story.
"We’re not dropping those veterans at all," O'Carroll said.
McSweeney isn't convinced.
“They should have never just left me hanging by myself. At all," McSweeney said. "And just to cut me free after they couldn’t do it anymore was wrong.100% wrong.”
SmileFaith reports that 22 veterans will have their crowns placed on Aug. 25-26.
“We’re not giving up on our veterans. I hope they’re not giving up on us," O'Carroll said.
Stepping up to help
After seeing the I-Team's story on SmileFaith, Congressman Gus Bilirakis reached out and promised to do more to help suffering veterans.
“There are people in the community that have contacted me already, and they want to make sure that they get the treatment. It’s so very important," he said.
The U.S. representative is known for prioritizing issues impacting veterans.
“I’m attacking this issue 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 the qualifications are concerned.”
Bilirakis said the qualifications need to be expanded.
"I have a bill that I filed the last couple of years to do that. First of all, it’ll prove how much money the government would save, the VA would save if they took care of this oral health.”
The Vet Care Act, he said, would focus on veterans with chronic health conditions.
“If you can take care of your oral health, first of all, you’ll be healthier overall over the course of a lifetime. But also, it will save the government money," Bilirakis said. "Preventive health is the key.”
The congressman said he's grateful to the nonprofits stepping up to fill the gap in care.
“There has to be accountability, and then we do have to make sure that 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 does not have the money to cover the costs, they can contact his office at 727-232-2921. He said they're in contact with a network of dentists in the Tampa Bay area who have volunteered to provide assistance.
Veterans can also call his office to secure an appointment for the "Stars, Stripes and Smiles Day of Service" for free dental procedures on November 4.
Wounded Veterans Relief Fund also contacted the I-Team, encouraging veterans impacted by the closure to give them a call — to see what they can do to help. To find out if you qualify to be considered for assistance through this particular nonprofit, visit their website. Phone number: 561-855-4207
This story came from a tip. If you have something you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email email@example.com or call 813- 354-2837.