Remember Archimedes? He was the Third Century BC Greek mathematician and philosopher who saw a world of trouble in need of reform, and framed his program in these mechanical terms: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
Journalists have long adapted Archimedes’ principle. Give us a story strong enough, and a platform with reach, and we can change, if not the world a lot.
The story of Deamonte Driver was more than strong enough: a 12 year old boy who died from an untreated infected tooth, losing his life less than an hour’s drive from the White House, the House of Representatives, The Senate.
When Mary Otto reported the story for the Washington Post it seemed like the perfect combination of lever and fulcrum that might indeed change a world, not only of savage inequality – which just about everyone already knew about – but of well-preserved ignorance that oral health wasn’t just a matter of pretty smiles, but life and death.
The Deamonte Driver story stirred Congress into action…no more kids would die from lack of dental care. A law was passed creating the S-CHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program guaranteeing oral health care to America’s poorest children. But President George W. Bush vetoed it.
Then President Barack Obama got S-CHIP passed and signed, and added dental care for kids eligible for Medicaid. He also suggested that oral health be part of everyone’s Obamacare coverage.
But he didn’t mandate it, so many states excluded dental care from their Medicaid program for adults, and the reality is, whatever the law says, change is incomplete. The estimate is that almost 1/3 of America’s White children have no dental care, and almost half of our country’s African-American and Hispanic kids are in the same bad boat: no dental care.
Mary Otto is the oral health topic leader for the Association of Health Care Journalists. She began writing about oral health at the Washington Post, where she worked for eight years covering social issues including health care and poverty, and she is the author of Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America (The New Press).