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Cummings assails Medicaid dental coverage

Congressman calls for reform in wake of death of Prince George's Co. youth

By Lynn Anderson

Sun Reporter

June 18, 2007, 6:05 PM EDT

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings scolded the Bush administration today for failing to provide adequate dental care to poor children, including a Prince George's County boy who died after a tooth infection spread to his brain, and promised to make a personal call to a top Medicaid official to demand answers. "My resolve is strong," said Cummings during a news conference at a community health clinic in Northwest Baltimore to promote a bill he has introduced to expand dental services for poor children and train more pediatric dentists. "I want every child to have the same access to dental care as my child." Cummings is also upset with the head of the federal government's Medicaid program, Dennis G. Smith, a Bush appointee, whom the Maryland congressman said has delayed responding to a May 17 letter he wrote seeking answers to the problem. Smith has said he doesn't want to sanction states that don't reimburse dentists enough to ensure dental access to all Medicaid beneficiaries. Instead, some dentists drop out of the program or refuse to take new patients. The deadline for response, according to a copy of the letter, which was also signed by other members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was June 1. An extension was granted to June 15, but federal officials also missed that goal. Another extension -- this time until Friday -- has been granted, according to committee officials. "I regret to inform you that we have not heard back from him," Cummings told the crowd of mothers, fathers and children who visited the Park West Medical Center in the 3300 block of W. Belvedere Ave. today. "But Mr. Smith will be hearing from me personally. Not an aide. From me." A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that Smith takes the committee's investigation into the death of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver of Prince George's County "very seriously." They boy's mother, who also lacked dental care, has said she had a hard time finding a dentist who would treat her children, even though they were Medicaid-eligible. The committee has asked Smith to give them assurances that he will enforce compliance with federal law that requires that children with Medicaid benefits receive dental care. The CMS spokesman, Aaron Hase, said that Smith expects to have his response to the committee "as soon as possible." Smith, a Bush appointee, has said he didn't want to penalize states that failed to reimburse dentists for procedures at a sufficient rate. In many states, including Maryland, dentists complain that they lose money when they treat Medicaid patients because the state does not reimburse them for the full cost of treatment. For example, the state pays Medicaid dentists $9 for dental sealants, while the cost to the dentist is roughly $40. "Sanction and enforcement at the federal level fundamentally means taking away money from states. ... This is something we do not take lightly," Smith told the committee at a May 2 hearing.

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