In 2007, 12-year-old Diamonte Driver died of a toothache. A routine $80 tooth extraction would have saved the Prince George’s County boy.
“If his mother had been insured,” The Washington Post noted at the time. “If his family had not lost its Medicaid. If Medicaid dentists weren’t so hard to find. If his mother hadn’t been focused on getting a dentist for his brother, who had six rotted teeth.”
The bacteria from the abscess had spread to Deamonte’s brain by the time his tooth got any attention. After two operations, he died.
The tragedy spawned reforms that brought some in Maryland better access to dental care, but a harsh reality remains that if Diamonte were alive with the same abscessed tooth today, he’d probably still die.
That’s the premise of an event planned by a coalition of groups, including Health Care for the Homeless, Public Justice Center, Pew Charitable Trusts, Maryland Dental Action Coalition and Maryland Family Network.
Also in attendance will be Mary Otto, The Post reporter who spent a decade trying to understand how the system failed Diamonte and wrote what she found in a just-published book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America.
The event, (to be held next Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, 31 South Greene Street) is intended to kick off a legislative campaign in Annapolis next year aimed at expanding access to dental care.
Speakers will discuss how the lack of access to dental care, like overall health care, correlates not only to sickness, but also to loss of employment and often homelessness.
Policy experts and advocates will discuss how the issue plays out in Baltimore and Maryland, with Health Care for the Homeless clients talking about their dental health challenges.
In Teeth, Otto looks at dental health care inequities nationwide and travels to poor communities from Alaska to Prince George’s County.
She notes that, while one third of white children go without dental care, the number is closer to one-half for black and Latino children.
It can be difficult to find a provider for the 49 million people who live in “dental professional shortage areas,” Otto wrote, and even for those who, like Deamonte Driver’s family at the time, do have Medicaid.
Spending time with mobile dental health vans run by charity organization, Otto ultimately calls for sweeping changes in dental health care. “We have a very serious social problem that we are trying to solve with private means,” a researcher told her.