Patients exploited by private equity-owned dental clinic: USA Today/Newsy
April 13, 2020
Patients were exploited while dentists were pressured into performing unnecessary work at a mega-dental chain that spans 13 states from Texas to Massachusetts, a new investigation by USA Today and Newsy finds.
The scathing report into North American Dental Group reveals a culture of profits over patients embedded in a private equity ownership model that has corrupted our American medical system. It is the same model that we have been working through the courts to bust up for years.
North American Dental was founded not by a dentist, the article explains, but by a man named Kenneth Cooper, whose younger years included being the lead singer in a rock band and whose closest brush with medical training was a stint in a dental clinic where he got to wear scrubs. (Along the way, he pleaded no contest to a felony drug charge, though the criminal record was later expunged.)
With no dental license, Cooper opened his own dental clinic in 2008. By 2012, his company had attracted a $40 million investment from a private equity firm, the article reports, attributing the figure to the Pitchbook private-equity research firm. Fast-forward five years, and the company had amassed debt of $128 million.
This pattern, of nondentists running clinics and fat-cat investors swooping in to make money off them, can be seen across the country. In many places in America today, the notion of a clinic made up of a professional dentist owner, a secretary and a couple dental assistants is downright quaint.
This despite laws aimed at ensuring that dental clinics are owned and managed only by licensed dentists. The thinking behind those laws is simple: A dentist, with specialized clinical and ethical training, should be driving decisions about patient care. Not an absentee investor.
- Learn more about our work to shut down abusive dental practices, assist whistleblowers, and help clients who have been harmed by rogue dentists.
Former staff at the chain’s clinics told USA Today/Newsy the company pressured its dentists and staff to perform work on patients that wasn’t needed.
“Before we saw our first patient of the day, they would discuss money and figures and what we needed to do to get to where they wanted us,” one dental assistant explained.
Managers sent out memos every month, “ranking dentists and hygienists by who’s making the most money per appointment,” the story explains. “Offices failing to hit their goals are colored in red – and told to step it up.”
USA Today/Newsy interviews with 20 patients who got second opinions after visiting North American Dental further confirm the pattern of unnecessary treatment. North American Dental dentists would assert the patients had several cavities and recommend an expensive slate of treatment. Another dentist would tell them they had no cavities at all.
One mother who said her son was overtreated by one of the chain's dentists explained that she was concerned when the dentist said her 3-year-old needed seven baby root canals, but she discounted her gut feeling. Surely the dentist knew better than she did.
“I figured he is a professional so I trusted him,” she recalls.
The case, which required surgeries on the little boy to fix the damage, led the Ohio state dental board to look into the dentist and suspend his license about a year later. In an interview with USA Today/Newsy, the treating dentist said in hindsight he should have pulled the teeth rather than crown them.
The dentist acknowledged that the little boy’s insurance, Medicaid, pays two-thirds less for a simple pulled tooth than for a baby root canal, but said he was not motivated by money.
As the article points out, overtreatment can take a significant financial and medical toll on the unwitting patients being bilked by the greedy owners of dental clinics. Unnecessary treatment often leads to costly follow-up care to fix botched procedures. Because dentists deal with anesthesia and perform procedures like root canals that access the body’s soft tissue and blood vessels, overtreatment can also mean medical complications, even death.
Think you’re too smart to get hoodwinked by a bad dentist? In our work with clients who have been abused by greedy dentists and clinic owners, we have represented doctors, finance whizzes, and school administrators. We all have a tendency to trust the guy or gal in the white coat. This is not a question of smarts.
Even for those who never fall prey to an unethical dentist, schemes like what happened at North American Dental impact the pocketbook. In their quest for easy money, the private equity chains have scooped up clinics across the country that serve low-income patients on Medicaid. When they overtreat those patients, taxpayers foot the bill.
Things will only get better when state dental boards, attorneys general, policymakers, and advocates like our team work in concert against the bad guys. Stellar reporting like the USA Today/Newsy piece shines a light on the problem. Let’s do something about it.