in 2007, Deamonte Driver died from complications of a toothache. He was 12. Something that could have been prevented by a simple dental procedure turned into a grueling six-week hospital stay and $250,000 in medical bills. Driver’s mother struggled to find a dentist in Maryland who accepted Medicaid and then the family lost their insurance coverage during the search.
As her son’s pain increased, Driver’s mom brought him to the emergency room where she learned that bacteria from the abscess in Driver’s mouth had spread to his brain.
Tooth decay has become an epidemic among low-income families and children of children of color are less likely to see a dentist and receive preventative care, according to a Pew Research Center report.
Driver’s tragic story resonated with Dr. Nicole McGrath-Barnes, a New Jersey dentist who had her own experience with a five-year-old Black girl who almost died.
The girl, nicknamed “Little Z” by Barnes, was rushed into her Barnes’ Montclair office by her great aunt with an oral abscess the size of a golf ball. McGrath-Barnes knew then she had to do something to make sure people in New Jersey have adequate access to oral health care.
At the Montclair premiere of the documentary “Toothache: The Painful Truth About Oral Health Care Inequity,” sponsored by Partners for Health Foundation, residents had a front row seat to the work Barnes and her foundation, KinderSmile, are doing to combat the disparities.
In New Jersey, oral heath care issues are the number one cause of children missing school. Compared to Maryland, which worked to pass legislation to close the disparity gap in oral health care after Driver’s death, New Jersey has more to do. In 2019, Dr. Darwin Hayes was hired as New Jersey’s first dental director in 30 years, thanks to a federal grant. In his role, Hayes works to create an oral health plan for the state and dental services and programs for residents.
Programs like KinderSmile Foundation work not only provide services but education. With three offices in Bloomfield, Newark and Trenton, the foundation serves all patients regardless of insurance status.
In a panel discussion held after the screening of the film, Barnes sat down with Dr. Debony Hughes, dental director for Maryland’s Department of Health; Marie-Gina Brown, health manager at the East Orange Child Development Corporation; and Kathy Smith, program director for Partners for Health Foundation.
Regarding the current system of oral health care and Medicaid coverage, Hughes asked, “How do you expect providers to provide quality service to patients when you’re paying them pennies on the dollar? It is not reasonable until we look at this system and decide that we’re going to make it equitable.”
To expand access to oral health care, the panelists believe education, funding, partnership and legislation are needed to create a more equitable dental care experience for New Jersey residents. In order to continue their part in educating and serving the community, KinderSmile Foundation relies on grants and donations. To donate and/or volunteer with the nonprofit organization, visit www.kindersmile.org.