Chain hit with suit alleging it illegally owns dental clinics

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

A class-action lawsuit, accusing one of America’s largest corporate dental chains of illegally owning dental practices and of deceiving patients, has been filed.

The Center for Public Integrity’s David Heath reported on the suitas part of his continuing coverage of Aspen Dental.

Mary OttoMary Otto, AHCJ’s topic leader on oral health is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover oral health care.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to mary@healthjournalism.org.

In June, “Dollars and Dentists,” a joint investigation led by CPI and PBS Frontline took a long look at rapidly expanding corporate dental chains, and probed the question of whether the profit motive built into their business model leads to overtreatment of patients.

The program joined a growing body of related inquiries, by the press and state and federal agencies and legislators. In May, Sydney Freedberg of Bloomberg took a detailed look at the model under the headline “Dental Abuse Seen Driven By Public Investments.”

Months of coverage by Dallas-Fort Worth television station WFAA into questionable Medicaid billing at corporate-owned All Smiles Dental Centers helped spur lawsuits by the state attorney general.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also has been investigating private-equity owned firms, concerned that dentists at such chains could be under pressure to boost profits.

Aspen, as Heath reported, is owned by a private-equity firm, Leonard Green & Partners, and markets to patients who often cannot afford to go to a dentist.

“Dollars and Dentists” found that that Aspen’s practices had led to complaints of patients ending up in debt, being overcharged or undergoing unnecessary treatments.

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“The lawsuit brought by 11 patients alleges that Aspen Dental owns and controls its 358 dental clinics in violation of laws in 22 states which allow only dentists to own a dental practice,” Heath wrote.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 18 in federal court in New York.

“The accusations that were made in yesterday’s filing are entirely without merit,” Aspen told Heath.

The company says it provides care to people who would otherwise lack it and that it also provides support services to dental offices owned by local dentists.

“The dentists and staff at Aspen Dental offices around the U.S. provide access to high quality, affordable dental care for millions of patients,” the Syracuse-based company said. “Their singular commitment is to do what’s right for their patients.”

“However,” Heath added in his story “attorneys for the patients, Brian Cohen and Jeffrey Norton, say in the lawsuit that Aspen Dental trains the dentists and sets production goals for them, accusing the company of illegally practicing medicine.”

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