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The Divide in Caring for Our Kids: New York Times Editorial

OP-ED COLUMNIST The Divide in Caring for Our Kids By BOB HERBERT A few weeks ago, Teri Hatcher, one of the stars of the television series “Desperate Housewives,” was on David Letterman’s show, talking very animatedly about a time when her daughter needed emergency dental care. “It was causing her some pain,” Ms. Hatcher said. “And then, of course, it was a Friday night. Overnight the whole thing blew up and it turned out to be an abscess.” Where to get a dentist on a Saturday? Luckily, Ms. Hatcher’s best friend is married to a dentist who was more than happy to open up his office that Saturday. But he needed an assistant. Ms. Hatcher volunteered. She digressed: “I hate the dentist... . Just my whole life, you know. It’s the worst. I would do anything to get out of going to the dentist. Really. Anything.” But Ms. Hatcher stood there like a trouper as the dentist examined her daughter’s tooth. “He sees it is an abscess, and he has to do surgery,” she said. “So you, I’m trying to — I hate it. I’m squeamish. I’m going to throw up, and then I’m trying to pull it together... “So he does the Novocaine and gives her a little of the gas. She is perfectly fine, because she’s going, ‘I love the dentist. I want to come here every day.’ And then, of course, I’m thinking, ‘Can I take a tank of that home? Because that is really what I need.’ ” And so on. The story, of course, had a happy ending. Ms. Hatcher’s daughter was fine. Mr. Letterman got to tell a raunchy dentist joke. The audience was amused, and Ms. Hatcher eventually exited to a robust round of applause. I was particularly interested in the segment because just a few hours earlier I had filed a column for the next day’s paper about health care for children. The column included the story of Deamonte Driver, a homeless 12-year-old from Prince George’s County, Md., who also had an abscessed tooth. Now, if I had been in Ms. Hatcher’s position, I would have done exactly as she did. I would have knocked down doors if necessary to get help for a child in distress. So this is no criticism of her. It’s an illustration of the kind of stunning differences in fortune that can face youngsters living at opposite ends of America’s vast economic divide. Deamonte needed his tooth pulled, a procedure that was estimated to cost $80. But his mother, Alyce Driver, had no health insurance for her children. She believes their Medicaid coverage lapsed early this year because of a bureaucratic foul-up, perhaps because paperwork was mailed to a homeless shelter after they had left. In any event, it would have been difficult for Ms. Driver to find an oral surgeon willing to treat a Medicaid patient. Untreated, the pain in Deamonte’s tooth grew worse. He was taken to a hospital emergency room, where he was given medication for pain and sinusitis and sent home. What started as a toothache now became a nightmare. Bacteria from the abscess had spread to Deamonte’s brain. The child was in agony, and on Feb. 25 he died. There’s a presidential election under way, but this sort of thing is not a big part of the campaign. American children are dying because of a lack of access to health care, and we’re worried about Mitt Romney’s religion and asking candidates to raise their hands to show whether they believe in evolution. I’m starting to believe in time travel because there’s no doubt this nation is moving backward. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul,” Nelson Mandela once said, “than the way in which it treats its children.” There are nine million children who lack health care in the U.S. and millions more who are eligible for coverage but fall through the cracks for one reason or another. What we need is a national commitment to provide basic health care to all children, not just the children of the well-to-do. This should be a no-brainer. You’re a child in the United States? You’ve got health care. We’re not going to let you die from a toothache. We’re better than that. We’re not going to let your family go bankrupt because you’ve got cancer or some other disease, or because you’ve been in a terrible accident. The cost? Don’t fall for that bogyman. There’s plenty of give in America’s glittering $13 trillion economy. What’s the sense of being the richest nation on the planet if you can’t even afford to keep your children healthy and alive? Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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