Open wide: A dental exam on health reform

When the 5-year-old boy opened wide for dentist Lindsey Robinson in April, she found cavities in the back corners of his mouth. But his parents, who had no insurance, didn't bring him back for fillings.

The boy returned in September with a toothache. Untreated, one cavity ''got into the nerve and developed an abscess,'' says Robinson, who practices in Grass Valley, Calif. She had to remove the tooth. "The parents felt horrible putting it off,'' she says.

This recession has led many adults to postpone trips to the dentist, both for themselves and their children. "In tough economic times, you're concerned about your job and your expenses,'' says Bill Prentice, director of the American Dental Association's Washington office. "People are putting off dental care. Patients aren't coming back for checkups as they should.''

During the ferocious debate on health reform, meanwhile, dental care has largely been shunted to the sidelines. It's treated as separate -- and unequal-- to general medical care, says Oral Health America, an advocacy and education organization that has called for dental coverage for all Americans.

The American Dental Association has also pushed for inclusion of dental care in reform legislation. In addition, the group seeks better pay for dentists who treat patients covered by Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor and disabled. Currently, many state Medicaid programs don't cover dentists' costs of seeing these patients.