In 2000, the Surgeon General released a report describing “the silent epidemic of oral diseases” affecting mainly the poor due to lack of access to dental care. Two weeks ago, that silence was broken in Maryland when a 12 year old homeless boy, Deamonte Driver, died tragically due to an untreated molar infection which spread to his brain.

Driver’s death has again drawn attention to how very few dentists are available to the poor and working class. In Maryland, for example, only 900 out of 5,500 dentists even accept Medicaid. As a consequence, there is a struggle to get an appointment, and travel time can take as much as three hours for a single dental visit. Moreover, in the case of Driver’s mother, according to The Post, “…bakery, construction and home health-care jobs she has held have not provided insurance.”

In response to this child’s horrific death, Maryland’s junior Senator, Ben Cardin, introduced the Children’s Dental Health Improvement Act of 2007 last week that would authorize $40 million (less than 4 hours of Iraq funding) to help community health centers hire dentists to serve poor children. It would also help states in increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for dentists.

As Cardin said on the Senate floor: “It is outrageous today that in America, a young boy can die because his family can’t find a dentist to remove an infected tooth. It is not enough simply to mourn Deamonte’s death. We must learn from this failure of our health-care system and take action to make sure it never happens again. Congress must act to make sure every child in America has access to quality dental care.”

A Maryland State Senate bill had already been introduced to provide $2 million annually over the next three years to expand dental clinics for the poor. But after the initial Washington Post stories about Deamonte “added urgency” to the bill, it has subsequently been revealed that the $6 million in state funding will not necessarily be available. According to The Post, Thomas M. Middleton, the bill’s sponsor, said that “in the event that there is some money, that money will be targeted where there is the greatest need.” Middleton is optimistic he can work with the Health Secretary to move around previously budgeted resources but there are no guarantees.

The outrage is, as recently elected Maryland State Senator and Nation contributor Jamie Raskin said, “We always have enough money for things we don’t need – like funding the war in Iraq, or boondoggle projects that will make developers a lot of money. But when it comes to things we do need – like dental care for kids – suddenly there’s no money. The fact is states are scrambling to patch together a fundamentally broken health care system, but until we move to a universal, single-payer type of approach, that’s how it’s going to be.”

Raskin also pointed out that poor dental care – such as rotting teeth, abscesses and gum disease – results in adverse social outcomes as kids grow up and enter the workforce. “If we are consigning our kids to poor dental health,” Raskin said, “we are limiting their opportunities for a lifetime.”

If ever there were a case of skewed priorities this is one – and the costs couldn’t be clearer or more heartbreaking. A child has lost his life due to a toothache, and our government’s callousness to easily remedied suffering has been revealed.

Now that this epidemic is no longer silent who will lead a humane and sane response?