Schoolmates taunted a 12-year-old Buffalo boy about his severe "buck teeth," and county Health Department officials told the youngster he must wait until after August 1991 to see a Medicaid orthodontist.
After the boy's father complained, the timetable for an appointment was moved to August 1990. But now the boy is withdrawing from contact with other children because they call him names and pick fights with him.
Rahman "Ronnie" McSween is believed to be one of hundreds of disadvantaged youngsters in Erie County who must wait up to two years to get braces on their teeth, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court today.
The lawsuit, filed for the boy by Neighborhood Legal Services Inc., accuses county and state officials of violating government regulations on orthodontic care for Medicaid children.
"It's absolutely incredible," said Rahman's attorney, James M. Morrissey. "Even if Ronnie is approved (in August) for care by an orthodontist, it will take another four to six months for the paperwork to be processed and the work to be performed. For Ronnie, that's a lot more taunts, jeers and fights at his school."
According to Morrissey, the county is systematically violating federal regulations that require the county to approve or disapprove requests for orthodontic care within 30 days.
State and county health officials could not immediately be reached to comment on the allegations in the suit, which requests an injunction barring such delays. The suit also seeks to have Rahman and other children in his situation certified as a class.
"Hundreds of low-income children in desperate need of orthodonture cannot obtain such services because of defendants' failure to approve of such services in a timely fashion," the action claims.
Neighborhood Legal Services is a not-for-profit organization that provides legal services for financially disadvantaged families. Its lawsuit names the state and county health departments and the state and county social services departments.
Medicaid, funded by the federal, state and county governments, is a federal program that provides health care for financially disadvantaged families. Medicaid programs in Erie County are administered by the county Health Department, the county Social Services Department, the state Health Department and state Social Services Department.
The orthodontic screening clinic run by the county Health Department operates clinics only four times a year and sees no more than 50 children at each clinic, regardless of how many requests are received. The use of this system virtually guarantees the county will violate the 30-day limit, Morrissey said.
"We want an injunction that requires the county to render a decision within 30 days, and if not, it should be deemed automatically approved," Morrissey said.
In court papers, Michael McSween said his son is the butt of cruel jokes at school, gets in fights and has failed three subjects this year, largely because of distractions and disciplinary problems relating to the condition of his teeth.
"Rahman used to enjoy reading. He is a good reader, and I try to encourage him to read. However, due to his dental problems, he cannot pronounce some sounds well. He is so embarrassed about this that he no longer wants to read, even with me," McSween said.
"I plead with the court not to force Rahman through yet another school year like the one he just endured."