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America's children need preventive health care

How did America get to the point where Deamonte Driver, a seventh-grader in Prince George's County, Md., died because he didn't have health insurance to cover an $80 tooth extraction?

What happened to Deamonte is a Dickensian horror story that, sadly, is not unique. More than 9 million children in our country live without health insurance, nearly 90 percent of them in working families. New York has 384,000 uninsured children. If we are to prevent similar tragedies, Congress and President Bush must enact legislation this year guaranteeing health and mental health coverage to all children.

The inexcusable and unnecessary loss of Deamonte's life started when he complained of a toothache. His mother, Alyce, who works at low-paying jobs, didn't have employer health insurance and Deamonte's Medicaid insurance was cut off. She'd had difficulty finding a dentist to see him, so she took Deamonte to a hospital emergency room where he was given medicine for a headache, sinusitis and dental abscess.

He quickly got much sicker and was rushed to surgery where it was discovered that the bacteria from his abscessed tooth had spread to his brain. Heroic efforts were made to save him, including two operations and eight weeks of additional care and therapy totaling about $250,000, all too late.

He died on Feb. 25. The outrage is that Deamonte's life could have been saved by far less costly health insurance to cover routine dental visits and an inexpensive extraction.

At the Children's Defense Fund, we believe that it is unjust and wrong in the richest nation on earth that children should not receive care when they need it when we have the means -- but not the will -- to protect them.

Until now, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program have made significant strides in providing 30 million children health insurance. Congress must finish the job by covering the one in nine of our children still without health insurance and millions more who are underinsured.

We propose that children's health coverage under Medicaid and SCHIP be consolidated into a single program with guaranteed, comprehensive health and mental health benefits for children whose family incomes are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

The United States provides health care to all senior citizens. But children are the least expensive and most cost-effective group to cover. Should they have to wait until they are 65 to be insured? Virtually all major industrialized nations provide universal health care to children. Why do we lag so far behind?

Children are too young to vote, they have no voice in Washington's corridors of power, and they can't afford to pay powerful lobbyists. So the American people must take up this fight for children's health and lives. Providing health coverage for all children in America is our moral obligation and now is the time to get it done.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.

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