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Health crisis: Inequality in dental care

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A few years ago, while visiting a country with universal health care, I took note of a busload of elementary school children unloading and entering a dental clinic.

Being the curious creature I am, I decided to enter the clinic and inquire as to what was happening with these children. Were they there for a demonstration on good dental care and hygiene? The answer caught me totally by surprise.

In this country, every six months, all schoolchildren are taken to a nearby dental clinic and, free of charge, given a dental check-up. If a decay or another problem is discovered, it is treated free of charge.

I was next introduced to one of the heads of this clinic and in the process of our dialogue, I asked why this was being done. Her reply was one displaying both common sense and one of a moral responsibility to the children of her country. Her response was, “Because it impacts the health of our children and makes for a healthier and more productive nation in the future.”

A recent article in The New Republic revealed that almost 114 million U.S. citizens lack any dental coverage. Worse, about half of our precious children on Medicaid did not receive a single dental service over the past several years. The article further said, and I fully agree, we could implement a system of universal care that would cover all in need and make treatment available on the basis of health needs, not means to get to it. But we refuse to do so.

As we are fixated on building a wall to keep out “unwanted” Hispanic immigrants, we are oblivious to the flood of U.S. citizens into Mexico seeking affordable dental care.

According to the Huffington Post, “So many Americans are making the trip across the border to see a dentist that one small border town, Los Algodones, is now better known by its nickname: Molar City. The demand has become so great that a website has been created to help Americans make appointments with Mexican dentists before they leave home.” This is, indeed, a sad irony.

My research indicates that the American Dental Association has fought dental care reform with all its energy and lobbying powers. The ADA has, in effect, admitted that much of the nation should be allowed to have their teeth rot.

Who are the majority of the victims of this mentality? As always, in one of the most affluent, wealthy nations in the world, it’s disproportionately the poor and racial minorities.

The issue of sufficient dental care grows even more acute in our nation’s rural areas. According to the National Rural Health Association, “About 43 percent of rural Americans lack access to dental care.”

I have argued for years for the need to provide dental benefits under Medicare, thus meeting the dental/health needs of millions of senior citizens. The extension of Medicaid is also a part of this issue of a healthier citizenry.

In ancient history, a toothache could ultimately lead to death. The untreated abscess invades the head and sinuses, then the brain, leading to death.

A few years ago, due to his family being cut from Maryland’s Medicaid program while they were homeless, a 12-year-old boy named Deamonte Driver died from an untreated abscess that spread to his brain.

We can and must stop this insane and unnecessary cycle.

Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.