Responding to a Tragedy

Sunday, April 27, 2008

NOTHING CAN make amends for the death of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver. He was the Prince George's County boy who died in February last year as the result of an infected tooth. But the terrible story of his death has been a powerful prod to Maryland lawmakers to make sure that no child's life is ever again in jeopardy because his or her family can't find or afford dental care.

Even when state dollars are scarce, the recently recessed General Assembly managed to come up with millions to improve dental care for poor children. "Everything we asked for, we got," health official Harry Goodman told the Post's Mary Otto. The money will help remedy problems, revealed by Deamonte's death last year, with Maryland's Medicaid dental program. Foremost was the unwillingness of many dentists to treat children covered by Medicaid because of the state's historically low reimbursement rates. It's instructive -- not to mention intolerable -- that fewer than one-third of Maryland children eligible for Medicaid were able to see a dentist in 2005.

The legislature came up with $7 million in state funds, to be matched by federal money, to boost reimbursement rates as part of a three-year strategy. We hope more dentists will now agree to treat these needy patients. Lawmakers, though, realized that this alone won't solve the problem, and so they embarked on an ambitious set of reforms recommended by a study commission convened after Deamonte's death. Among the more promising ideas was a measure approved by the legislature to free dental hygienists in public health settings to do more for those most in need. State law had required hygienists to work under the strict supervision of dentists but, as other states are learning, there is no reason why these trained professionals shouldn't be allowed to provide such important preventive care as cleanings and fluoride treatments. It's a cost-effective way of getting help to those who otherwise would not be served. Deamonte's case was extreme, but the importance of good oral health for children cannot be overstated. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the legislature should be commended for recognizing that and doing something about it.

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