The reason I’m here is to explain to the members of this House why health care is, indeed, a right. Let me start by telling the story of Deamonte Driver.
Deamonte lived on the wrong side of the tracks, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. He was raised by a single mother. He spent his childhood in and out of homeless shelters. He was a black kid on welfare.
Deamonte died at age twelve. But Deamonte died, not in a drive-by shooting, or in a drug deal gone bad. Deamonte died of a toothache.
In January 2007, Deamonte told his mother, Alyce, that he had a headache. She took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe dental abscess and given some medication. But the next day, his condition worsened. It turned out that the infection from his tooth had spread to his brain. He was taken to the hospital again and underwent emergency surgery. After a second surgery, he got better for a while, but then began to have seizures. Several weeks later, Deamonte was dead.
Of course, that was in the old, barbaric America, the one before the enactment of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. After that law is fully implemented, nearly every American will have health insurance, and stories like Deamonte’s will be a thing of the past.
Except that Deamonte Driver died not because he was uninsured. Indeed, Deamonte Driver died because he was insured—by the government. Deamonte, it turns out, was on Medicaid, America’s government-run health care program for the poor.
Although Deamonte was insured, he never received routine dental care. It turns out that only 16 percent of Maryland dentists accept Medicaid patients. Fewer than one-sixth of Maryland kids on Medicaid have ever had a cavity filled. Deamonte’s younger brother, DaShawn, had six rotted teeth, but it took dozens of calls before DaShawn could find one dentist who would see him. When the dentist concluded that DaShawn’s teeth were beyond repair, and required extraction, it took another several months to find an oral surgeon who would see him.
The reason why so few doctors accept Medicaid insurance is that Medicaid, in many states, pays doctors far less than it costs those doctors to care for Medicaid patients. Here in Connecticut, Medicaid pays 63 cents for every dollar that a private insurer pays a doctor to treat someone. In New Jersey, Medicaid pays only 33 cents. In New York and Rhode Island, it’s 29 cents. Doctors here face the impossible choice of treating these indigent patients, and bankrupting their practices, or not treating them at all.
You’d think that many mothers in Alyce’s position would find a way around this problem, that she could offer to supplement Medicaid’s penurious fees in order to gain access to a better dentist for her two sons. But that would be illegal. For those enrolled in government-run health insurance, it is illegal to try to gain better access to doctors and dentists by offering to make up the difference between what health care costs, and what the government pays.
That basic right—the right of a woman and her doctor to freely exchange money for a needed medical service—is one that 90 million Americans have been denied by their government.