A Boy's Death

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

THE WHAT-IFS of Deamonte Driver's short life are heartbreaking. Just 12 years old, the Prince George's County boy died last week because of a succession of breakdowns in a system set up to ensure that children get basic dental care that is critical to their health. Equally tragic is that there are many more children like Deamonte who are at risk.

Deamonte's death, as reported by The Post's Mary Otto, happened because he didn't get timely treatment for a decaying tooth. Bacteria from the problem tooth migrated to his brain, and after two operations and more than six weeks in the hospital, he died. Deamonte's death should be more than mourned. It should serve as a call to strengthen the safety net -- and the first step is not blaming the victim. We have been taken aback by the ire some have directed at the boy's mother.

Obviously there is always parental responsibility, but, as children's health advocates will attest, the real issues are with the system. The states, the federal government and the dental profession have to do more. Medicaid requires dental coverage for children who qualify. But there aren't enough dentists willing to either treat children (think of Deamonte's brother whose dental treatment was stopped when he squirmed too much) or to accept Medicaid. This is a nationwide problem; states such as Virginia and Tennessee have developed robust programs to increase the number of dentists willing to serve the needs of people on the margins.

Another solution is expanding the reach of public health: The Maryland legislature should approve a bill to increase public dental clinics by allocating $6 million over three years.

Although not required, most states provide dental care under the State Children's Health Insurance Program to low-income children who don't qualify for Medicaid. That act is now up for reauthorization. Congress would do well to include dental care in the menu of benefits, as well as help out states that face budget shortfalls. Those worried about cost should think about Deamonte. The loss of his life is immeasurable, but it's worth noting that the cost of his care is likely to top $250,000. There can't be a more vivid reminder of how shortsighted our system is in not fostering access to preventive health care that saves not only money but lives.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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