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For Want of a Dentist

Deamonte Driver, sitting next to his mother, Alyce, shows the scars from incisions for his brain surgery.
Deamonte Driver, sitting next to his mother, Alyce, shows the scars from incisions for his brain surgery. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

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By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died of a toothache Sunday.

A routine, $80 tooth extraction might have saved him.

If his mother had been insured.

If his family had not lost its Medicaid.

If Medicaid dentists weren't so hard to find.

If his mother hadn't been focused on getting a dentist for his brother, who had six rotted teeth.

By the time Deamonte's own aching tooth got any attention, the bacteria from the abscess had spread to his brain, doctors said. After two operations and more than six weeks of hospital care, the Prince George's County boy died.

Deamonte's death and the ultimate cost of his care, which could total more than $250,000, underscore an often-overlooked concern in the debate over universal health coverage: dental care.

Some poor children have no dental coverage at all. Others travel three hours to find a dentist willing to take Medicaid patients and accept the incumbent paperwork. And some, including Deamonte's brother, get in for a tooth cleaning but have trouble securing an oral surgeon to fix deeper problems.

In spite of efforts to change the system, fewer than one in three children in Maryland's Medicaid program received any dental service at all in 2005, the latest year for which figures are available from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The figures were worse elsewhere in the region. In the District, 29.3 percent got treatment, and in Virginia, 24.3 percent were treated, although all three jurisdictions say they have done a better job reaching children in recent years.

"I certainly hope the state agencies responsible for making sure these children have dental care take note so that Deamonte didn't die in vain," said Laurie Norris, a lawyer for the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center who tried to help the Driver family. "They know there is a problem, and they have not devoted adequate resources to solving it."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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