Dental bill fight continues with little compromise in sight

Dentists continue to brawl over new rules for dental management organizations.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Two factions of dentists are continuing to battle over S 655, which would tighten rules on dental service organizations. The argument breaks down roughly between large-group dental practices whose dentists affiliate with bigger companies and smaller, more traditional dental offices allied with the N.C. Dental Society who says there are opportunities for abuse in the large group dental practices. 

Both sides claim to be on the side of better patient care. The large-group practices say they're providing service at a low cost to more people. Dental Service Organizations allow them to see more patients while others take care of paperwork. The Dental Society claims investor-owned dentistry practices present a threat to public health. They says service organizations in other states have exerted too much control over patient care. 

Along the way, both the FTC and national Republican luminaries have weighed in on the bill, urging lawmakers to vote it down. 

"I think it's going to get done," said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, who has been trying to get the two sides to compromise all spring. "I think there's an honest attempt from both sides to come up with something they can both live with."

Those on both sides of the debate confirmed they've been talking, but the Alliance for Access to Dental Care, the large-group dentists fighting the bill, held a news conference this morning that sounded like compromise was the last thing on their mind.

They brought dentists and patients from around the state to the legislative building to speak out against the bill.

Arthur Smith, a Durham man whose family goes to Dental Works at the South Point Mall, said the dentists there help identify a serious health issue his wife had caused by dental work gone wrong.

"Without Dental Works, I don't know what she would have done," Smith said. "It's been a life saver for me and my family."

As currently drafted, the bill would give the N.C. Dental Board power to investigate dental management agreements and would limit how much control the corporations could exert over their practices. Dental management companies said the bill would keep them from forging agreements that would let them earn back their investments.

"They give us more time to spend with patients," said Dr. Bruce Gray, a Durham dentist who works in a large group practice. He said the bill "does nothing to improve the quality of dental care." 

Susan Vick, on of the organizers of the alliance, said that there are parts of S 655 where the two sides might come to agreement. But, she said, the overall bill still raised concerned for group dental practices.

"We don't think anybody can cobble together a bill that will allow dental management groups to continue operating," she said. "There are so many problems with it we frankly at this point would rather see it go away."

Alec Parker, a dentist and the executive director of the dental society, said his side was equally resolved to see the measure pushed through.

"We had thought there might be room for compromise," Parker said, but then noted today's news conference, which he watched. "It seem like the message out there was kill the bill."

Both Parker and Vick said that people from across the nation were watching the North Carolina battle. This state has the only active dental management bill and both said North Carolina could set a precedent for other states. 

"What happens here may be a hint for what they can do," Parker said. 

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