Nonprofit Dental Clinic in Alabama Generates Opposition from Dentists and Special Interests

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April 28, 2011; Source: Medscape Medical News | Just about a year ago, the NPQ Newswire covered an ongoing controversy between the nonprofit Sarrell Dental Clinic and the Alabama Dental Association, with the private dentists complaining vociferously about the quality of care offered by Sarrell, though clearly exercised about competition, not quality of care. Their true motivations weren’t hard to figure out, as the ADA tried to get the University of Alabama at Birmingham to stop students from working at the clinic.

Is it any surprise that the dentists haven’t stopped their attacks on Sarrell? Is it any surprise that they have used their economic and political influence to get the state to consider legislation to undermine the nonprofit clinic?

Sarrell specializes in serving pediatric Medicaid patients, addressing one of the very hidden parts of inadequate health care in the U.S., the problem of inadequate dental services for poor children. The ALDA has now branded Sarrell as a “Medicaid mill,” succeeded in cancelling the UAB’s provision of student dentists to work in the clinic, prompted a Federal Trade Commission investigation of the clinic, and pushed legislation through the state’s lower house to increase state regulation of the clinic.

What’s wrong with the clinic’s dental services? Outside the state, experts, such as Frank Catalanotto, chair of community dentistry at the University of Florida and a board member of Oral Health America, says that Sarrell is not a Medicaid mill and is following “very, very sound business practices.” Sarrell started in 2005 when some dentists came together to help children who could not afford dental care. Sarrell’s CEO says that 60 percent of Alabama kids who are on Medicaid haven’t seen a dentist in the past year.

The clinic, now with 11 fixed offices and one mobile office, gave away $400,000 in dental care to patients in 2010, never turns away a patient even if they are late or don’t have appointments, and, according to the CEO, “If they make it here, somehow, somewhere, even if we have to stay late, we’ll see them.” According to Medscape, the $10 million Sarrell clinic, now the largest dental provider in the state, is turning away job applicants and, according to the CEO, has “never had a complaint from a consumer,” unlike other Medicaid specialty practices.

There’s no evidence – and no charges – that Sarrell is offering subpar services. To the contrary. ALDA’s members are exercising their political muscle to kill a nonprofit clinic serving the poor. That’s the story, and it’s really not very nice.—Rick Cohen

  • R. Ruth Linden, Ph.D

    Wouldn’t it stand to reason that if the private-sector dentists of Alabama wanted to shut down the Sarrell Clinic, then they would compete with the clinic on its own terms by providing more comprehensive services, better customer care, and so forth? I find it difficult to believe that the Alabama dental community is clamoring for pediatric Medicaid patients, perhaps one of the most dentally underserved populations in the US for which reimbursement from the state is meager and slow. One can only conclude that the dentists’ motivation is punitive.

    What are the racial/ethnic demographics of the clinic’s clients?