Ala. dental spat may foreshadow Obama plan effects

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Alone in a meeting room, trustees of the Alabama Dental Association complained about Sarrell Dental Center, a nonprofit corporation that treats thousands of needy children on Medicaid.

In a rambling exchange, leaders of the 1,800-member professional organization said they were concerned about Sarrell’s quality of care, and they lamented that for-profit dentists face tough business demands. Something needed to be done, they agreed.

The comments – made public after Sarrell Dental obtained a transcript of the session – helped blow the lid off a simmering dispute between the nonprofit chain of clinics and Alabama’s traditional dentists. Sarrell Dental has since filed a slander lawsuit against one of the board members, and the state’s only dental school this week pulled its students out of two Sarrell clinics where they saw patients.

The acrimony is similar to turf battles in other states as companies, rather than private dentists, step in to care for young people covered by Medicaid. The private offices typically take Medicaid patients, but advocates say there simply aren’t enough dentists to treat the needy across the country.

The conflicts, which have been brewing over a decade, could become more common with the passage of President Barack Obama’s health care bill, which includes mandatory dental coverage for kids, said Meg Booth of the Washington-based advocacy group Children’s Dental Health Project.

“The safety net is not large enough to absorb the number of children who are not able to get into private dental care,” Booth said. “This is very much because of the lack of access to dental care.”

Nationally, some 26 million children lack dental insurance coverage. But only 37 percent of the children eligible for Medicaid-funded dental care visit a dentist at least once a year, according to a report released last year by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The interim executive director of the Alabama Dental Association, Dr. Zack Studstill, doesn’t deny there’s a problem with needy children getting adequate dental treatment in the state. But the idea of a corporation or nonprofit organization owning dental clinics is new in Alabama, and established dentists aren’t sure what it will mean in the long-term, he said.

Sarrell Dental counters that Alabama’s dental establishment is endangering care for thousands of poor children by trying to limit the growth of corporate and nonprofit chains.

To illustrate what it called attack by the state dental association, Sarrell Dental released a transcript of the Jan. 31 trustees meeting to the public. Comments from the meeting are part of the lawsuit filed by Sarrell in March against one of the participants, Dr. Steve Mitchell, who teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Associated Press