Dental Diagnoses: Good protection or upcharging?

11:22 AM, Feb 28, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA, Florida -- Patients hate going to the dentist, especially when there's a big bill waiting for them at the end of the visit.  Sometimes, a coupon for a free consultation could wind up costing you even more in the long run.

The 10 News Investigators sent a pair of producers with no major dental problems undercover to get free consultations at local chains and dental groups. They were both checked out first by veteran South Tampa dentist Jeffrey Schroeder, D.D.S. While most dentists generally agreed on what each of the producers needed, one chain pushed a drastically different course of action.

Our producers said the Aspen Dental office in Ruskin trotted one specialist in to see them after another, each employee pushing a different kind of service. Aspen Dental, who advertises on WTSP-TV, says they only have one dentist working at that office.

One producer, who was told by multiple dentists that he only needed a cleaning and a filling, was told by Aspen that he should get a tooth pulled. On top of other procedures and charges suggested, his full treatment plan came to $1,073.

ALSO READ: More Americans winding up in ER for dental problems

Another producer, who was told she had little more than a grinding problem, was diagnosed by Aspen with periodontal disease -- an opinion other dentists analyzed and refuted. The producer's suggested treatment plan, after multiple periodontal treatments, fillings, and other add-ons, was $2,138. Because she didn't have insurance, Aspen offered a $320 discount.

The extensive -- and expensive -- treatment plans echo many complaints Aspen has received over the years. The nationwide chain has had over 800 complaints to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) over the past three years, but they tell 10 News that it's because of their huge volume of care across the country. The BBB has seven complaints about the eight Aspen offices around Tampa Bay.

But Pennsylvania's attorney general also brokered a $175,000 settlement with Aspen in 2010 after accusing the chain of "using confusing or misleading information about discounts, coupons, free denture consultations, interest-free financing, free initial exams and other advertisements and promotions.Aspen offers free consultations online, on their office signage, and in television ads too.

Ruskin schoolteacher Maria Edwards first brought the story to the attention of 10 News because she too says she was diagnosed with a periodontal infection incorrectly after a free consultation. Her $1,372 bill had her scrambling for a second opinion.

Edwards, 25, also says her insurance was charged anyway for the consultation even though she had a coupon for a free visit.  She says she then had to pay for a second opinion out of her own pocket because her insurance had already been billed.

Aspen Dental declined an on-camera interview for the story but issued a statement to the 10 News Investigators: 

At Aspen Dental, dentists and hygienists believe in providing comprehensive care. Every new patient is given a comprehensive exam at his or her initial visit. Based on the results of that exam, the dentist uses his or her clinical judgment to recommend a treatment plan that addresses the patient's short-term and long-term oral health care needs.

Patient privacy regulations prevent us from discussing any patient's treatment plan with anyone other than the patient. However, it is not uncommon for two dentists to look at the same patient and offer different treatment recommendations - it is simply a reflection of what each dentist believes is the best course of action for that particular patient. We encourage patients to ask questions of the dentist to fully understand the recommended course of treatment so that they are able to make an informed choice.

It is also important to note that periodontal (gum) disease is under-diagnosed in the U.S. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, approximately 75% of adults in the United States are affected by some form of periodontal disease. Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Dental Research by the CDC and the American Academy of Periodontology suggests that the prevalence of periodontal disease may have been underestimated by as much as 50 percent.

Our goal is for every patient who visits Aspen Dental to have a positive experience, and nearly 9 out of 10 patients indicate that they would refer a family member or friend to Aspen Dental. Even though the overall complaint ratio is very low when compared to the number of patients who visit Aspen Dental, even one complaint is too many. We are always striving to provide better customer service and to deliver patient satisfaction.

10 News also visited Coast Dental's Dale Mabry office in South Tampa after receiving complaints about over-diagnosing, but the dentists seeing our producers gave similar treatment advice as Schroeder. The estimates were significantly smaller than Aspen's.

However, Coast's "free consultation" wasn't 100 percent free; each producer was charged $5 for sterilization of equipment.  Coast charges every patient the fee, even though it isn't disclosed up front.

When asked about the fee, Coast says it is their standard procedure, but the 10 News producers were charged in error.  New patients with the "free consultation" coupon are not supposed to be charged and Coast later refunded the producers' payments.

CONSUMER PROTECTIONS

If you feel you've been wrongly charged by a dental office after a free consultation or responding to a promotional offer, Florida law offers the following protection:

THE PATIENT AND ANY OTHER PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR PAYMENT HAS A RIGHT TO REFUSE TO PAY, CANCEL PAYMENT, OR BE REIMBURSED FOR PAYMENT FOR ANY OTHER SERVICE, EXAMINATION, OR TREATMENT THAT IS PERFORMED AS A RESULT OF AND WITHIN 72 HOURS OF RESPONDING TO THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE FREE, DISCOUNTED FEE, OR REDUCED FEE SERVICE, EXAMINATION, OR TREATMENT.

While intentionally over-diagnosing a patient is fraud in Florida, there are few instances of the state disciplining dentists. Across the entire state, there have been just 40 instances in the last 10 years of probation, suspension, or revocation of licenses.

A Florida Department of Health spokesperson suggests patients look up their dentists (and doctors) on the state's licensing website.

While the lead dentist at the Aspen office visited, Allison Konick, had a clean discipline record from the state, several dentists in the Coast office had been disciplined before. David R. Katz, D.D.S., was disciplined twice in the 1990s, including once for felony drug trafficking when he prescribed Hydrocodone to a non-patient.

Another Coast dentist, Dale Solomon, D.M.D., pulled eight of a patient's upper teeth in 2003 when he was supposed to pull that person's lower teeth.

IMPORTANCE OF DENTAL VISITS

Spokespersons from both Aspen and Coast stressed the importance of regular dentist visits. All agreed that preventative measures are cheaper than corrective measures in the long-term and keeping healthy teeth and gums can lead to whole-body health.

A new study indictes more Americans are winding up in the emergency room because they neglected their teeth.

When in doubt, seek out a second opinion, because you can never get too much input. But not getting enough can be a serious health risk.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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