FTC reviews flap over dental care in Ala.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is looking into a dispute between leaders of the Alabama Dental Association (ALDA) and a fast-growing nonprofit dental clinic that treats young people with Medicaid coverage at its eight clinics.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry (UABSOD) recently ended a five-year relationship with Sarrell Dental Clinic -- a not-for-profit corporation that is the largest single provider of Medicaid dental services in Alabama -- which the clinic claims is due to a turf battle with private practitioners.

Sarrell CEO Jeff Parker said he was contacted by FTC attorneys seeking information on patient access to dental care and trade issues.

"We reach out to people in different areas now and then," FTC spokesman Mitch Katz said. However, he noted, the contact does not amount to an investigation.

Parker said the dental school bowed to pressure from alumni dentists in its decision to terminate the contract.

But Zack Studstill, D.D.S., interim executive director of the ALDA, said the organization has not discussed this issue with the school -- "nor, to my knowledge, has it made any suggestions to the school relative to its relationship with the Sarrell Regional Dental Clinics," he said. Corporate ownership of dental offices, in which nondentists are the corporate owners and manage the clinics, is a relatively new phenomenon in Alabama, he added.

UAB spokesman Dale Turnbough contends that the conflict stems from a disagreement over the supervision of dental students.

Comments from a January meeting of the Alabama Dental Association trustees are part of a slander lawsuit filed by Sarrell against Steve Mitchell, D.M.D., director of the dental school's pediatric dentistry department.

Sarrell's revenues in 2009 exceeded $6 million, almost all from Medicaid and other aid payments.

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 conflicts, which have been brewing for more than a decade, could become more common with the recent passage of the healthcare reform bill, which includes mandatory dental coverage for kids.

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