When Kiddie Teeth Rot, Parents Should Pay

When Kiddie Teeth Rot, Parents Should Pay

More than 20 percent of U.S. kids have untreated cavities, according to the CDC.

Why you should care

Cavities are a “pending public health crisis” and need not be.

My Brazilian friend had quite the mouth — of dental fillings. She was 30, but, she told me, she’d gotten all those cavities before she hit 5. “How could your parents have done that?” I asked her, shocked. She shrugged. Her parents were young and poor and not, apparently, concerned with dental hygiene. Anyway, Brazil’s national health system paid for those ugly metal fillings.

Enablers, in our view. Parents need to take care of their kids’ teeth, and if they don’t, they should pay the consequences. Out of pocket. This might sound harsh, but the system as is clearly isn’t working to the advantage of kids. More than 20 percent of U.S. kids have untreated cavities, according to the CDC. Down the road, this hidden rot can cause pulled teeth, speech impairment and a lot of suffering in the dentist’s chair.

Setting the water fluoridation controversy aside, the usual policy remedy is to throw taxpayer money and state care at the problem — like Obamacare, which provides expansive dental health offerings for children and will likely reduce the number of kids without dental insurance by half. And Congress is currently debating the Action for Dental Health Act, which would further bolster pediatric dental health government support.

We are all for access to care, but really: Should the government be bankrolling parents’ negligence? Already the country’s largest dental insurance company pays out $42 million a year on claims for stainless steel crowns, the kind used for kid teeth. Most of that spending could be prevented if parents paid a bit more attention to making sure their kids skipped the soda, not the brushing — especially when they’re too young to do it for themselves. In the U.S., 1 in4 kids under 5 already has cavities. “I see children with cavities as early as 1 and 2 years of age,” says Mary Hayes, a pediatric dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association.

To be sure, a lot of those kids are poor — dental hygiene is highly correlated with income in wealthy countries — and critics would argue that holding parents accountable for their kids’ cavities is tantamount to punishing the poor. We don’t want that, either. But then I remember Yellow Tooth John, one of my elementary school classmates in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Maybe if his mom knew she’d be fined for his dental problems, she wouldn’t have sent him to bed with a bottle of milk every night — and instead might have made him brush.

But perhaps the real issue is not how parents are treating their kids, but their own pearly whites. After all, a third of American adults haven’t visited a dentist in the last year.

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