Over the past five years, Maryland and the nation have made great strides in improving access to dental care for children. We are proud that Maryland has emerged as a national leader in this area -- launching a $1.2 million oral health literacy campaign, raising Medicaid reimbursement rates for dentists, and providing some allied health professionals and hygienists the opportunity to practice outside of clinics. Today, the Deamonte Driver Dental Project provides services in underserved neighborhoods in Prince George’s County, thanks to efforts conceived and launched by a dedicated coalition of the state’s African-American dentists.

At the federal level, in 2009, we worked together to secure a guaranteed dental benefit for all children in the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (CHIP). We also were successful in getting a provision in the bill that establishes telephone- and web-based resources to provide up-to-date information about participating dentists and available benefits in every state. We are proud that the landmark 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires pediatric oral health care be included as part of each state’s Essential Benefits health care package.  

Moving forward, states have a critical role to play in ensuring that the ACA’s pediatric oral health benefit is designed to promote preventive care, recognize that some children are at greater risk for dental disease than others, and deliver care based on that risk. We also applaud the Obama Administration for its strong commitment to oral health. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched its Oral Health Initiative, establishing a coordinated multi-agency effort to improve access to care. 

In our state, the percentage of children enrolled in Medicaid who have visited a dentist in the previous year rose from 49.3 percent in 2007 to 63.9 percent in 2010, according to Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Yet, for all the progress we have made, we know that more must be done. 

Nationwide, nearly 50 million Americans live in areas where they can’t get dental care for a variety of reasons, but primarily due to the high cost of care and a shortage of providers. According to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report, the nation’s current dental care system simply does not work for a third of all Americans. Case in point: Last summer, 24 year-old Kyle Willis of Ohio died from an untreated tooth infection. In fact, the health of millions of Americans is jeopardized because they cannot find a dental provider willing to provide treatment for tooth decay.  

The access problem has become so severe that many are forced to seek treatment for tooth pain in the nation’s emergency rooms, receiving uncoordinated care in the most expensive health care setting, and as a result, inflating the overall cost of health care. In fact, more people seek treatment in emergency rooms for tooth pain than they do for asthma.   

Medicaid, the federal-state partnership, is a critical safety net program whose potential has not yet been fully realized. Although millions of children have the right to dental care under Medicaid, too few are receiving care because they cannot locate a dentist who is willing to see them. In addition to improving coverage, we must explore policy initiatives to expand the dental workforce so that far more Americans have access to preventive and simple restorative care.   

Painful lessons have taught us that oral health is critical to overall health. As we mark this fifth anniversary and honor Deamonte Driver’s life and legacy, we recommit ourselves to working to ensure that access to good oral health care is available to every American.  

Sen. Cardin (D-Md.) represents Maryland in the U.S. Senate and Rep. Cummings (D-Md.) is the congressman to Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.