5 years after boy dies from toothache, Maryland Medicaid dental care is on mend

February 15, 2012

In 2007, Maryland’s Medicaid dental-care program came under fire after a Prince George’s County boy died from an untreated tooth infection that spread lethal bacteria to his brain. Five years later, the same system that failed 12-year-old Deamonte Driver is now touted as one of the best in the nation, officials said Wednesday at a children’s dental care panel on Capitol Hill.

Health-care representatives from across the country addressed the state of children’s dental care at the event hosted by Pew’s Children’s Dental Care campaign. Maryland’s efforts at reform, spurred in large part by Deamonte’s death, received top marks in a 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report released in May.

During the hearing, which became emotional at times, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) pointed out that Deamonte would have been 17 this year, “but he’s gone,” Cummings said. “No more birthdays, no more Christmas, no graduation from high school. Gone.”

“His sun went down as it was still day,” he added.

An abscess in Driver’s tooth spread to his brain, and six weeks and two neural surgeries later he was dead. An $80 tooth extraction could have saved his life.

Deamonte’s death exposed a disjointed dental-care program in the state: Thousands of Maryland children weren’t connecting with Medicaid-sponsored dentists, and those dentists were receiving little reimbursement for treating Medicaid patients. The year before Driver died, just one-third of Maryland’s more than 500,000 Medicaid-covered children had received dental-care treatment.

Fast forward to 2010, the most recent year for which Pew has released dental-care data, and almost 42 percent of Medicaid-enrolled children in Maryland were getting dental treatment. Last year, Maryland became one of only five states that Pew awarded an “A” for reimbursement of dental fees accrued when treating Medicaid patients.

“We were all pretty much put on our heels by Deamonte’s death,” said Harry Goodman, who took over as director of oral health for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shortly after Driver died. “But I think that we’ve really been fueled by the emotion of that event to change things, and we’re contuing to move forward.”

When Deamonte first became sick his mother, Alyce Driver, was searching in vain for a dentist for her other son, who was suffering from six rotted teeth. With her Medicaid lapsed, the family’s struggle to find a dentist was compounded by stretches of homelessness, a lack of transportation and trouble maintaining a consistent phone number or mailing address.

Congressional hearings held in the wake of Deamonte’s death led then-Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene John M. Colmers to create the Maryland Dental Action Coalition.

When the state reauthorized its Children’s Health Insurance Program in 2009, it added coverage for children in a slightly higher income bracket than those covered under Medicaid.

Pew also launched a national Children’s Dental Campaign to assess and help improve prevention and treatment across the country.

Alyce Driver worked to become a dental assistant, Cummings said. She graduated from a training program last year and now assists a dentist in Capitol Heights who works with the Deamonte Driver Dental Project to provide grass-roots treatment to Medicaid patients.

“Through his death his mother got a new life,” Cummings said.

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