WASHINGTON An estimated 6.5 million U.S. children cared for through the Medicaid public health insurance program have untreated tooth decay, according to a report released on Wednesday.
Only about a third of the 20 million children covered by Medicaid had any dental care at all in the past year, according to the report from the Government Accountability Office.
"Children in Medicaid remain at higher risk of dental disease compared to children with private health insurance; children in Medicaid were almost twice as likely to have untreated tooth decay," the GAO report reads.
GAO, the investigational arm of Congress, was asked to look at the situation after the death in 2007 of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland Medicaid patient whose mother could not find a dentist to treat his infected tooth.
The GAO looked at two national surveys for its projections and reported to a hearing of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on domestic policy.
"Projected to 2005 enrollment levels, GAO estimates that 6.5 million children aged 2 through 18 in Medicaid had untreated tooth decay," the report reads.
"Similarly, about one in eight children reportedly never sees a dentist. More than half of children with private health insurance, by contrast, had received dental care in the prior year," it adds.
Medicaid is the joint federal and state program that provides health care coverage for low-income, blind and disabled people.
The GAO estimated that more than 5 percent of children in Medicaid aged 2 through 18 had urgent dental conditions such as tooth fractures, oral lesions and chronic pain.
"We estimate that in 2005, 1.1 million children aged 2 through 18 in Medicaid had conditions that warranted seeing a dentist within 2 weeks. Compared to children who had private insurance, children in Medicaid were more than four times as likely to be in urgent need of dental care," the report reads.
"Most children in Medicaid do not visit the dentist regularly," it added.
Sometimes parents tried hard to get care for their children, the report suggests. "We estimate that 724,000 children aged 2 through 18 in Medicaid could not obtain needed care."
(Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)