How did America get to the point where Deamonte Driver, a seventh-grader in Prince George's County, Maryland, died because he didn't have health insurance to cover an $80 tooth extraction and his mother couldn't find a dentist to treat him?
What happened to Deamonte is a Dickensian horror story that, sadly, is not unique in our rich nation. More than nine million children in our country try to live without health insurance, nearly 90 percent of them in working families. If we are to prevent similar tragedies, Congress and President Bush must enact long overdue legislation this year guaranteeing health and mental health coverage to all children. And every one of you reading this column ought to pick up the phone or e-mail your senators and representatives.
The inexcusable and unnecessary loss of Deamonte's life started when he complained of a toothache. His mother, who has low paying jobs, didn't have employer health insurance, and Deamonte's insurance had been cut off. She had difficulty finding a dentist to see Deamonte, so she took him to a hospital emergency room where he was given medicine for a headache, sinusitis and dental abscess. But he got much sicker and was rushed to surgery where it was discovered that bacteria from his abscessed tooth had spread to his brain. Heroic efforts were made to save him, including two operations and eight weeks of additional care totaling over $250,000 — but it was all too late. The outrage is that Deamonte's life could have been saved by less-costly health insurance, routine dental visits and by a pool of dentists willing to take Medicaid children.
There are millions of children in our country who are in pain every day with toothaches and chronic illnesses. Like Deamonte, they are at risk of death because they have no health insurance. It is unjust and wrong that in the richest nation on earth a child should suffer or die when we have the means but not the will to protect them.
As Congress considers renewal of funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program this year, they have the opportunity and responsibility to take the logical, achievable and cost-effective step of guaranteeing comprehensive health care to all children and pregnant women. We propose that children's health coverage under Medicaid and SCHIP be consolidated into a single program with a guaranteed, comprehensive benefit package nationwide for children whose family incomes are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($61,950 for a family of four in 2007). Benefits would include dental, vision and mental health care as well as routine doctor visits. Child survival would not depend on the lottery of geography or family income.
Bureaucratic barriers to child coverage would be eliminated. Children currently enrolled in Medicaid, SCHIP and other means-tested federal programs like school lunch and food stamps would be automatically enrolled. Children would also be automatically enrolled when they are born, start school or get a Social Security card unless their parents opt out. The Children's Defense Fund's proposal would also increase reimbursement rates to health care providers. Deamonte's trouble finding a dentist willing to treat him illustrates this problem. In Maryland, fewer than 25 percent of dentists accept Medicaid patients. Bringing Medicaid reimbursement rates up to Medicare levels will make many more doctors and dentists who available to children.
The United States provides health care to all senior citizens, although children are the least expensive and most cost-effective group to cover. Should children have to wait until they are 65 to be insured? Virtually all industrialized nations provide universal health care to children. Why do we lag so far behind? We certainly don't lag behind in the brainpower to figure out how to do this. We certainly don't lack the resources. No other country can match the $13 trillion Gross Domestic Product of the United States. The funding needed to expand health coverage to all children and pregnant women would be less than what it costs to give the wealthiest one percent tax cuts averaging $41,000 a year.
Children are too young to vote, have no voice in Washington's corridors of power and can't afford to pay powerful lobbyists. So you must fight for their health and lives. Health coverage for all children in America is our moral and practical obligation and now is the time to get it done. All that's needed is the political will to make it happen this year. Children can't wait. And tragically, like Deamonte, they are dying. For more information on CDF's All Healthy Children plan, visit www.electsusie.com.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council.