This February marks the 5-year anniversary of the tragic death of Deamonte Driver, the 12-year-old Prince George’s County youngster who died from an abscessed tooth. Deamonte died only miles from our nation’s capital and his death was a national tragedy.
Deamonte’s death was entirely preventable. What started out as a toothache turned into a severe brain infection that could have been prevented by an $80 extraction. His death also underscored the fact that there can be “no health without oral health,” and that dental decay is the most prevalent disease among children.
Access to the medical attention that Deamonte needed was hindered by obstacles to affordable, regular dental care. In the five years since Deamonte’s death, we have changed that to significantly expand access to dental care to millions of children, particularly low-income children.
In 2009, Congress reauthorized the Children Health Insurance Program (CHIP), for the first time guaranteeing dental care as a benefit to all enrolled children. It also included my proposals to create a Department of Health and Human Services website where parents can find a dentist in their community and it established a dental education program for new parents.
I am proud to say that CHIP has expanded dental health care services to approximately 5 million children from low-income families who did not qualify for Medicaid and who would otherwise be uninsured.
We also succeeded in ensuring even more children will have access to dental care by classifying pediatric dental care as an essential benefit in the Affordable Care Act. This means starting in 2014, health care plans must include preventive, restorative, and emergency dental care.
We can also take pride that Maryland — Deamonte Driver’s home state — has become a model for the nation in access to dental care. The Pew Center on the States has recognized Maryland as the top performer in the nation when it comes to oral heath care. Maryland was the only state to reach 7 of the 8 benchmarks.
To illustrate the progress Maryland has made, consider these facts: In 2006, the year before Deamonte’s death, Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that just 44 percent of children ages 4 to 20 enrolled in the Medicaid program were able to get dental care. In 2010, thanks to strong outreach efforts, the number of Maryland children enrolled in Medicaid who are able to access dental care increased to 64 percent.
This is all very positive news, but we still have a long way to go. According to the Pew Center on the States, 16.5 million children nationwide continue to go without basic dental care each year. This month, as we mark the fifth anniversary of Deamonte Driver’s death, my goal is to make sure that all children in our nation have access to oral health care services.