Massachusetts filed a lawsuit on December 9 against dental service organization (DSO) Aspen Dental Management for allegedly running a series of bait-and-switch advertisements that resulted in unexpected costs for thousands of patients.
The lawsuit was filed in Suffolk County Superior Court and accuses Aspen Dental of violating the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Law, as well as a settlement the DSO signed in 2014 with the state related to similar conduct, according to a press release issued by the Office of the Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
"Aspen Dental took advantage of vulnerable consumers in need of dental care and used misleading advertising to lure them into their offices under false pretenses," Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a release.
In a statement to DrBicuspid.com, an Aspen Dental spokesperson said the lawsuit lacked merit and was designed to grab headlines. The company intends to fight the case, which it claims relies on old information.
"Sadly, the Massachusetts Attorney General has brought a lawsuit based on overblown rhetoric that's inconsistent with its own actions," the spokesperson said.
Claims of false advertising
Between 2014 and 2021, Aspen Dental Management, recently rebranded as TAG - The Aspen Group, advertised consistently that its offices offer free x-rays and dental exams to new patients who were not covered with insurance. However, the company purportedly routinely charged patients for these services, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit accuses the company of not honoring "guarantees" and engaging in other deceptive practices in its interactions with consumers. It further claims that the company's misconduct began by luring consumers to its offices with the false promises of free services, which sent many consumers into debt collection.
Also, Aspen Dental is accused of taking advantage of patients who were experiencing pain and seeking emergency treatment. The dental service organization allegedly told callers that their initial appointments were free. However, customers were billed after they received exams for their emergencies, according to the suit.
Though Aspen Dental fraudulently advertised "no hidden fees," the state alleges that the company's scheduling center representatives were "not permitted to advise" prospective patients of certain fees that typically are associated with emergency appointments.
Prior legal actions in Mass.
The claims outlined in the lawsuit mirror prior accusations against Aspen Dental in the state. In a 2014 settlement, Aspen Dental agreed to pay $990,000 to settle allegations of deceptive advertising and marketing practices and for failing to refund patients for services not provided in Massachusetts. At the time, Aspen Dental and Aspen Dental Associates of New England reportedly ran misleading advertisements, unlawfully charged consumers before they received treatments, and failed to refund patients.
In filing this new suit, Massachusetts aims to prevent Aspen Dental from using these unlawful practices. The state also seeks for the company to pay restitution for victims as well as civil penalties and costs to the state.
Though Aspen Dental denied the allegations, the DSO agreed to pay at least $770,000 in restitution to first-time customers who allegedly were forced to pay for exams and x-rays that the company said would be free. Also, Aspen Dental agreed to contact patients who were eligible for refunds and pay $220,000 to Massachusetts. Furthermore, the DSO specifically agreed not to advertise free services without disclosing all limitations or misrepresent credit card, loan, and refund policies.
Aspen Dental response
When asked to comment on the story, the Aspen Dental spokesperson submitted the following statement to DrBicuspid.com:-->
"We have been cooperating with the AG's [attorney general's] office since the beginning. We've not only responded to their massive demands, but most, if not all of the concerns raised by the AG's office that we've known about were addressed long ago, whether we agreed with them or not. In fact, a judge observed on the record that we acted in good faith during the AG's multi-year investigation and declined to order sanctions against us that the AG sought.
"Aspen Dental was founded with a mission of breaking down barriers to care. The company has worked for years in Massachusetts to lower the barriers to quality dental care in the neighborhoods that needed it most. ... We’re proud of the services we provide to support the independent practice owners in Massachusetts, enabling them to provide care for more than 200,000 patient visits each year in the state – the vast majority who are repeat customers."
In Massachusetts, Aspen Dental has more than 25 dental offices. These offices collected more than $389 million in net patient revenue from December 2014 to January 2019, according to the release.