Billings VA clinic

The Veterans Affairs Clinic in Billings.

Gazette Staff

Jose Bustos had a cavity to fill. As a Vietnam veteran eligible for dental care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, he figured he'd take care of it at the Billings facility.

He said he received a form letter from the government referring him to the VA Clinic in Sheridan, Wyoming.

“For one thing, why should I have to go 272 miles round trip for a minor filling?" said Bustos, 70. "In addition to that, my wife is disabled. I have to take her back and forth to work.”

The Billings VA has been without dental care since January, when that office shut down without explanation. Patients eligible for routine care were directed to Sheridan or Fort Harrison facilities, requiring long trips for those in the rural region.

Furthermore, programs for the use of community-based provider programs were suspended during the summer.

"This past summer, the use of provider agreements was suspended for a time due to temporary funding constraints at the national level," said Mike Garcia, public affairs officer for the Montana VA Health Care System.

The Veterans Choice Program was one of those community provider agreement programs. Though it received a $2.1 billion infusion in September, the Associated Press reported the referral program could run out of money by the end of the year.

That's beginning to change, Garcia said. A new dental service chief started on Oct. 2 at Fort Harrison, and the department plans to have a dentist in place in Billings by January.

In addition, Garcia said community provider agreements resumed in September for eligible patients.

But Bustos, who realized he needed a cavity filling just as community provider restrictions went into effect, couldn't travel. He wrote a letter to Sen. Steve Daines asking for help.

"At 24 years service and on cancer watch from the chemicals we sprayed in Vietnam, I thought I earned those benefits," Bustos wrote.

As a service member in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, Bustos was killing plants as part of an herbicide unit.

The Viet Cong, he said, would hide in the thick foliage. His job was to clear it out.

“What we would do is spray chemicals to kill all those leaves, so that would prevent them from hiding behind all the foliage," he said. "So they’d have to go farther back.”

U.S. forces sprayed millions of gallons of chemicals onto the forests during the war. The most common substance used was Agent Orange. 

Not only did it clear up visibility, but it set up a clearing that Bustos called a "kill zone." It was a buffer intended to expose an approaching enemy.

Bustos said he spent a year in Vietnam out of his four-year stint with the Air Force. After he finished that service, he said he received a letter from the government that said all that chemical exposure might have health effects later in life.

Now 70, small lesions have appeared on his skin. He recently had two removed. He said his doctor told him that the callus in his bladder was another effect.

"She said this is caused by all those chemicals," Bustos said.

Bustos retired from the Montana Air National Guard in 2006.

The personnel and care at the Billings VA Clinic have been great, he said. The facility works with the resources it has. But he drew a line at driving hundreds of miles for an hourlong filling job.

Bustos opted to get it done at a Billings dentist. He paid for it himself.

Garcia, the VA spokesman, said that eligible veterans now can get in touch with the Fort Harrison dental clinic for the possibility of working with a temporary community provider.

In addition, the dental chief at Fort Harrison may take patients in Billings until that position is filled.

"The new service chief plans to rotate out to Billings to provide services, as needed, until the full-time dentist begins work there after the new year," Garcia said.

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