Most Marylanders have heard about the tragic death of Deamonte Driver, age 12, from a brain infection caused by an abscessed tooth. For months, his mother tried to get dental care for him and his brother, who also suffered from serious tooth decay. But Deamonte's mother had lost her Medicaid, and, even if she had it, she would have found it very difficult to find a dentist willing to accept the program's low payments.
Low-income children have limited access to dental treatment. I recently visited with children in the Head Start program at Highland Park Elementary School in Landover, MD. There I watched as Dr. Frederick Clark, a dentist from Temple Hills, examined the children. After the screening, I talked with Dr. Clark about the reluctance of many dentists to provide low-income children with care because of the low reimbursement rates.
According to the latest figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, fewer than one in three Maryland children in the Medicaid program received dental services in 2005.
This year Congress has an opportunity to expand access to dental care for low-income children through reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). S-CHIP was originally created by Congress in 1997 as a federal-state partnership to help families who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough money to purchase private health insurance.
I want to be sure that when we reauthorize the S-CHIP program that we improve access and delivery of dental care to low-income children. We also must make sure that dentists receive adequate compensation for treating low-income children. I have joined with U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) in introducing the Children's Dental Health Improvement Act (S. 739) so we can make sure there are no more tragic deaths like that of Deamonte's.
This bill would improve S-CHIP and Medicaid payment rates to encourage more dentists to provide care to low-income children. It also would expand school-based dental programs, encourage dental schools to train more residents, and provide incentives to dentists willing to work in underserved parts of the country.
Tooth decay is easily preventable and treatable. There is no reason — or excuse — that in the 21st Century a child should die from an infected tooth. With the reauthorization of the S-CHIP program, we have to make sure it never happens again.