Poor Kids Without Dental Insurance Can Suffer Deadly Consequences

Congress will hold a hearing today about a very painful subject for many American families: children's dental health.

One in three American children lack dental insurance, and the consequences can be deadly.

While people talk about the need for better health-care often, dental care is often overlooked. Though 8 million kids lack health care, three times as many -- more than 25 million -- don't have dental care.

For the poorest children who are on Medicaid, dental care can be difficult to find.

Deamonte Driver was a typical 12-year-old boy. He died from tooth decay.

"I am very angry that my son had to lose his life just because we didn't have insurance," Driver's mother, Alyce Driver, said.

It started with a toothache. Driver had never been to a dentist. Treated too late, the bacteria in his tooth spread to his brain. After two surgeries, doctors thought he was on the road to recovery, but they were wrong.

"He called me back around 12 and he said, 'Mom, make sure you pray before you go to bed.' That was his last words to me," Alyce Driver said. "My son had to die -- 12 years old -- because of a tooth."

Driver was entitled to dental coverage under Medicaid, but his struggling mother couldn't find a dentist to treat him even with the help of a lawyer.

"It should not take dozens of calls and dozens of hours to find a dentist for a child who has a tooth abscess," said Laurie Norris of the Public Justice Center.

ABC News went to Medicaid for answers.

"Well, the Medicaid program does in fact cover these services," said Leslie Norwalk, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "It was a failure on many levels."

In 2000, the surgeon general reported that tooth decay was the most chronic ailment for children and that poor children were most at risk.

"I do think it is important that all of them get that kind of health care," Norwalk said. "What you want to do … is get to the Mrs. Drivers of the world far earlier on."

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