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Cummings fights for youth dental care

The Baltimore Sun

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings accused the Bush administration yesterday of failing to provide adequate dental care to poor children, including a Prince George's boy who died after a tooth infection spread to his brain, and promised to make a personal call to a top Medicaid official to demand answers.

"My resolve is strong," said Cummings at a Northwest Baltimore community health clinic where he promoted a bill he introduced to expand dental services for poor children and train more pediatric dentists.

"I want every child to have the same access to dental care as my child."

The death of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver in February served as "wake-up call" to Congress, said Cummings, who with other members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has launched an investigation into the boy's death.

As part of that review, Cummings and other Democrats have questioned the actions - or lack thereof - of the Bush administration in regards to the Medicaid program.

Cummings is especially upset with the head of the federal government's Medicaid program, Dennis G. Smith, a Bush appointee, who the Maryland congressman said has delayed responding to a May 17 letter he wrote seeking answers to the problem.

The deadline for response, according to a copy of the letter, which was also signed by other members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was June 1.

An extension was granted to June 15, but federal officials also missed that goal. Another extension - this time until Friday - has been granted, according to committee officials.

"I regret to inform you that we have not heard back from him," Cummings told the crowd of mothers, fathers and children who visited the Park West Medical Center in the 3300 block of W. Belvedere Ave. yesterday. Later in the day, after he was informed of the third deadline, Cummings said he was "extremely disappointed."

"The children don't have time to wait," he said.

A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that Smith takes the committee's investigation into Deamonte's death "very seriously."

The boy's mother, who also lacked dental care, has said she had a hard time finding a dentist who would treat her children, even though they were Medicaid-eligible.

The committee has asked Smith to give them assurances that he will enforce compliance with federal law that requires that children with Medicaid benefits receive dental care.

Smith has said he didn't want to penalize states that failed to reimburse dentists for procedures at a sufficient rate.

In many states, including Maryland, dentists complain that they lose money when they treat Medicaid patients because the state does not reimburse them for the full cost of treatment. For example, the state pays Medicaid dentists $9 for dental sealants, while the cost to the dentist is roughly $40. Because of this, some dentists drop out of the program or refuse to take new patients.

Health officials have convened a Dental Action Committee that will make recommendations on Medicaid reimbursement rates and other issues. The committee met for the first time last week. Medicaid andState Children's Health Insurance Program, another federal health program, provide health care benefits for about 400,000 Maryland children and young adults up to age 21.

Baltimore officials are also working to provide children with fluoride varnishes - a procedure that costs $1 and takes about 2 minutes but drastically reduces cavities - when they visit the pediatrician.


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