Monday, May 07, 2007

Dental Care and Medicaid's Blind Spots

If a poor African-American child dies from the complications of an untreated dental abscess, will anyone care? Apparently many people do, and a hearing on Capitol Hill may only be the beginning. From NPR to cable news, the story has traveled the wires.

Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old from Maryland, died recently from complications of a dental infection for which his mother could not find treatment. The boy's family is insured by Medicaid, and I do not believe the firestorm surrounding his death will be extinguished any time soon. While managed-care bureaucrats argue that plenty of dentists could have treated Deamonte, the health department of Prince George's County lists only 50 dentists willing to treat the approximately 50,000 children with Medicaid in that county alone.

Speaking of the seven-month battle to secure dental care for Deamonte's brother, Laurie Norris, a lawyer from the Baltimore-area Public Justice Center was quoted as saying, "It took the combined efforts of one mother, one lawyer, one help-line supervisor and three health-care case management professionals for a single Medicaid-insured child."

It was pointed out during the Capitol Hill hearings that Maryland has the lowest reimbursement rates in the nation for dental restoration procedures. We all acknowledge that dentists and other providers must be able to meet their overhead, pay staff, have adequate salaries, and be able to repay significant business- and education-related debt. However, what do we tell these children whose teeth rot in their mouths? And what do we tell mothers like Alyce Driver, who has lost her son before his thirteenth birthday because she could not find timely dental care in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth?

Political will is not easy to muster in this country, especially when it involves increasing benefits for poor communities of color. As the presidential campaign escalates in rhetoric and promises, much lip-service is paid to abstract concepts like "the sanctity of life" and no child being left behind. Deamonte Driver was left behind, and his life was certainly sacred to his mother and family, as it also must be to us all.

So, back to my original question. If an African-American child dies from an untreated dental abscess, does anyone care? Apparently so. Now, what will be done to honor Deamonte's short life and prevent others from suffering a similar fate? This society has some choices to make. Let's pray that the will to make those choices exists, or such stories will only be repeated for years to come.
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