PBS Frontline investigated the nation’s dental care on Tuesday, June 26, 2012 episode titled Dollars and Dentists (watch the episode below). PBS examined the nation’s dental care system by digging into the different methods that try to serve patients and their dental care woes.
Diane Herbert-Farrell, a spokeswoman for “Frontline,” said “The film looks at different states: the state of Florida, some work done in Virginia; we look at several of the models being tried. We look at how are people looking at dental care.”
Sarrell Dental Clinic was one of those different methods being looked at. Jeff Parker, CEO of Sarrell, said “Frontline” camera crew and members spent about 11 hours filming in the Anniston office, interviewing employees, patients and their families. He said, “I’m very pleased they chose us to use as a role model.”
Sarrell Dental has 14 clinics across Alabama and a mobile bus. They are currently the main provider in the state of dental care for children on Medicaid and has had continuous growth since its first clinic opened in 2005. In its first year, Sarrell served 3,500 children. Last year, Sarrell served 105,000 patients and has served 350,000 patients to date, according to the site.
More than 100 million Americans don’t go to the dentist because they simply can’t afford the bill that comes after. Many either go broke trying to pay for the dentist bill or they suffer from extreme pain while going untreated and some even die from the untreated disease.
One in four children have untreated tooth decay, which is now the most common chronic illness among school-aged children. Nearly 5 million American children, or one in 16, did not get a regular dental checkup in 2008 because their families could not afford it, according to a report released last year from the Institute of Medicine.
In 2009, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation data, 19 million children had no dental insurance. Poor children are covered by Medicaid and dentist will turn them away because the profit margins aren’t there. The problem, Medicare offers no dental coverage unless it’s connected to a medical procedure.
The PBS Frontline investigation also found that Kool Smiles, who specializes in treating low-income children, will financially reward their dentists for hitting a high revenue goal and sometimes fire those who don’t.
Kool Smiles denies that they influence dentists to boost revenues and says it offers quality dental care to an underserved population neglected by traditional dental practices.
Aspen Dental was another that PBS Frontline looked at. They are one of the largest for-profit chains that is aimed at adults who haven’t been to the dentists in years. Aspen Dental is a chain of 300 offices in 22 states managed by a company owned by a private-equity firm. It is part of a fast-growing industry of corporate dental practices, many of which specialize in serving people who cannot afford to go to the dentist, a group many dentists ignore, PBS reported.
Aspen Dental chief executive Robert Fontana said, “A typical patient is probably 45 to 65 and struggling just to make ends meet. They’re taking this week’s paycheck to pay last month’s mortgage, making their car payment, trying to put their kids through school and unfortunately, dentistry can become discretionary.”
Aspen Dental denies that its dentists have stronger financial incentives than other dentists or that its bonuses affect treatments. Fontana, founder and chief executive officer of Aspen Dental, says that dentists won’t do unnecessary treatments because it’s just not in their DNA.