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Learning from our Children's Pain

The Afro Learning from our children’s pain Thursday, August 16, 2007 Elijah E. Cummings When I was young, I honestly believed that toothaches were just another part of growing up; Orajel was as common an item in our household as dish soap or toilet paper. Back then, I had no idea that this pain was something preventable and treatable, and I am sad to say that today far too many young boys and girls suffer with the same needless pain. Tooth decay is the most prevalent and preventable chronic disease in our children and it has actually increased over the past decade. As is the case with many health disparities, tooth decay most commonly occurs in low-income and minority children. It is now five times more common than asthma. The prevalence of this disease is absolutely unacceptable in a country with our level of technology and health care. We would not accept such gross negligence in our treatment of preventable diseases like tuberculosis or smallpox, and we must not accept it for dental disease. A few months ago, a young African-American Maryland boy named Deamonte Driver died when a tooth infection spread to his brain. I made it my personal mission to bring life out of this young boy’s tragic and preventable death, and I wrote a column shortly after that, outlining a strategy to overcome the barriers to universal dental care. Since that column, several great strides have been made in achieving this goal. One of the greatest barriers to children’s dental care is lack of access. There are not enough dentists trained in pediatrics in general, and there are even fewer dentists trained in pediatrics who will accept Medicaid payments specifically. Even if patients have been fortunate enough to find a dentist who is both trained in pediatrics and willing to accept their coverage, they are likely to encounter difficulties getting to their appointments. Last week, we took an important step toward knocking down this barrier. UnitedHealth Group, the Driver family’s Medicaid provider, teamed up with the University of Maryland Dental School to enhance pediatric dental services in Maryland and increase access to these services for children from low-income families. This agreement is the first implementation of several recommendations I made to UnitedHealth following the death of Deamonte. UnitedHealth will provide the Dental School with more than $170,000 annually, and, in turn, the University will enact new services and programs designed to reduce these obstacles keeping children from receiving dental care. These programs include creating mini-pediatric dentistry residency programs and hiring a Pediatric Dental Fellow and a Pediatric Dentistry Case Manager. The Dental Fellow will provide dental care to underserved and handicapped children, and the Case Manager will provide on-site services for Medicaid patients to help remove obstacles for appointment-keeping. There is no excuse for children dying due to inadequate access to dentists. The University of Maryland-UnitedHealth partnership should serve as a model for others, both in Maryland and nationwide. We must also recognize, however, that the lack of access to dentists trained in pediatrics is only one obstacle standing in the way. It offers little use to expand the dental safety net and increase the number of dentists serving our children if the children’s families cannot afford the dental work. For this reason, I have also been working hard to enact legislation guaranteeing that our underserved children can afford dental care. Just before breaking for the August recess, the House of Representatives passed the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act. In addition to protecting our seniors by expanding access to preventive care and stopping the privatization of Medicare, the CHAMP Act also made great strides for children through the re-authorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The re-authorization of CHIP will prevent 6 million children from losing their health coverage——including 136,000 right here in Maryland. It will also expand coverage to 5 million children who are currently eligible for the program but not enrolled. I took the lead in ensuring that CHIP included mandatory dental benefits for these children, as well as provisions I authored that will help educate parents on the importance of early dental care and streamline contracting practices between health centers and private practice dentists. The Senate also passed a version of CHIP, and we will be meeting with them when we return from August recess to draft a final bill to send to President Bush. I should note that the President has already threatened to veto this legislation, essentially leaving millions of children without access to healthcare. The American people must tell the White House that it is unconscionable to demand $10 billion a month for operations in Iraq while turning our backs on millions of American children. I will continue to work hard to keep the dental provisions included in this final version of CHIP, but legislation should not stop at the federal level. I have also reached out to the Maryland state legislature and Governor O’Malley, encouraging both to make pediatric dental care a top priority in their upcoming session. While it is truly a tragedy that Deamonte Driver suffered a death that could have been easily prevented, I am determined to ensure that it not be in vain. In the months since his death, I have launched a multi-faceted approach to achieve this goal. We have already begun to make great strides, and I will continue to work at all aspects of this issue to ensure that Orajel no longer needs to be a common household item and that children no longer think tooth pain is a part of growing up. Now is the time for America to begin learning from our children’s pain. Congressman Elijah E. Cummings represents Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

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