HAS THE TRAGIC death of Deamonte Driver already been forgotten? He is the 12-year-old from Prince George's County who died because of a decaying tooth that too long went untreated. Some members of Congress seem willing to overlook his story and what happens to low-income children who lack access to dental care.
Congress is getting ready to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for children in low-income families who don't qualify for Medicaid. This important safety net guarantees certain treatments for children, like well-baby care and hospitalization. Inexplicably, the program does not guarantee dental benefits. Advocates for child health had hoped that the attention caused by Deamonte's case would prompt Congress to mandate coverage.
The Senate Finance Committee is set to release its version of the program today, and early reports indicate that it will not contain a dental guarantee. Drafters of the bill argue that it's not needed since most states already provide dental care under SCHIP. That a federal guarantee would stabilize an important benefit is more reason than ever to include such a provision. Because dental care is seen as discretionary, it is vulnerable to cutting, as evidenced by the attempts of several cash-strapped states to cut the dental benefit.
At the heart of this issue is a lack of understanding of the importance and implications of good oral health care. A recent report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted the increasing prevalence of tooth decay in young children, making it the single most common chronic disease of childhood in the United States. Basic dental care is not a luxury. Those who would scoff at "just a little cavity" would not underestimate the seriousness of an infection in an eye, a leg or any other body part. Deamonte's case was extreme and rare. But every day there are children who can't pay attention in school and who can't fall asleep at night because they have problems with their teeth.
Then, too, there are the cost implications. Untreated dental problems worsen into other medical issues; perversely, there is no question, should that happen, that the care will be covered.