03.09.18

Death from a Toothache: The Story of Deamonte Driver and Where we Stand Today in Ensuring Access to Dental Health Care for Children in the District

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Oral health is an important part of overall health.  Unfortunately, many people forget this important aspect of wellbeing.  For children with special health care needs, dental hygiene is often low on the list of priorities for their parents and or caregivers.  In February 2007, twelve year old Deamonte Driver died of a toothache in Maryland.

Deamonte Driver is a name that may be familiar to people in the DC area.  Hopefully it is a name that will never be forgotten.  With his unfortunate loss of life, comes a reminder and a warning to ensure that something like this never happens again.

Deamonte was in need of a simple $80 tooth extraction.  Such a procedure would have saved his life.  However, due to a number of circumstances, Deamonte never received this common procedure.  His mother was not insured.   Medicaid dentists were difficult to find.  The family had lost their Medicaid coverage.  His mother was focused on finding a dentist for Deamonte’s brother, who had six rotting teeth.  Bacteria from the abscess in Deamonte’s tooth had spread to his brain by the time he received attention for his toothache.  Following six weeks in the hospital and two operations, Deamonte died.

Deamonte’s death sparked outrage and change in Maryland.  The system was disjointed.  Thousands of children weren’t connecting with Medicaid-sponsored dentists and little reimbursement was being paid for those dentists who were seeing Medicaid patients.   Only about one-third the state’s over 500,000 Medicaid-covered children were receiving dental treatment in the year before Deamonte’s death.  Five years later, Prince George’s County, the county that failed Deamonte Driver, was named one of the best places in the country for children’s dental care.

The sad reality is that all of this could have been prevented.  What is even more unnerving is that more than ten years later, the system in Washington, DC has seen little improvement in removing the barriers to accessing dental services for children with special health care needs.

Georgetown University’s Medical and Law centers have recently teamed up to form the Health Justice Alliance (HJA), a medical-legal partnership with a focus on “developing the next generation of leaders in medicine and law to work together to improve the health and well-being of people living in poverty.”   The HJA brings together students, clinicians, and other health care professionals as well as law center faculty, students, and policy experts “to engage in service, interprofessional education, advocacy, and research in pursuit of health, justice, and racial equity.”

A team within the HJA has dedicated itself to oral health needs for children with special health care needs in the DC area.  At the end of March, with generous support from the George E. Richmond Foundation, the HJA, the O’Neill Institute, and the Harrison Institute for Public Law, will host a convening focusing on this important issue.  The convening will focus on finding to solutions to the barriers that prevent children with special health care needs from accessing oral health services in the District and beyond.  The event will begin with an introduction of the barriers with a panel featuring parents of children with special health care needs as well as a practicing pediatric dentist in the DC area.  Roundtable breakout sessions will allow the attendees to identify barriers and identify practical solutions.  The day will wrap up with a panel of policy leaders and health care professionals discussing solutions to ensure there will never be another Deamonte Driver again.

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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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