Aspen Dental invited CPI and FRONTLINE to a new office in Warsaw, Ind., to show how badly needed its services are. Warsaw, a town of about 13,500, has only six private dentists. Aspen Dental opened an office there after a dentist noticed how many people from Warsaw were driving an hour to Fort Wayne for dental appointments.
Ted Collins, a 47-year-old truck driver, walked into the office that day with an excruciating toothache.“I have to use ice packs at times to keep it frozen so I can get some sleep,” Collins said.
He hadn’t been to a dentist in ten years and came in because of the free X-rays. Two of his teeth were abscessed, an infection that can spread and in rare cases even become fatal. The office gave him a comprehensive exam and found he needed dentures.
Dr. Kurt Losier, the owner of the practice, wiggled several of Collins teeth and showed on the X-ray that his bone had receded dramatically. Losier suggested Collins get the dentures with the longest warranty, which are also the most expensive dentures. Collins couldn’t afford the treatment plan, which came to $7,000. So the office manager tried to sign him up for a credit card. He was rejected.
Patients at Aspen Dental are turned away every day because they cannot afford the treatment, Losier said. To avoid that, the office will trim the treatment plan down. But even that often doesn’t work.
Losier vowed no matter what, he would take care of Collins’ abscessed teeth. Ultimately Collins said a friend gave him the money for the dentures.
Haynes, the former office manager, said she lost sleep at night worried about whether the sales tactics Aspen Dental taught her were ethical. She said she trusted the dentists she worked with. But she was so skeptical of the expensive deep-cleanings sold to so many patients that she herself refused to get one after she was examined in her own office.
Lance Dykes, who managed an office in in Tennessee, said he felt like he was being forced to take advantage of people by selling them treatments he suspected they didn’t really need. He finally quit one day when he says he had to sell a $12,000 treatment plan to an elderly couple who seemed confused.
Dykes said the man looked him in the eye and asked if he had to decide right then. Dykes said no. Go home and think about it. This broke the rules taught in training for closing the deal, which he says, include getting the patient to commit before they walk out.
In December 2008, Sarah Keckler went to an Aspen Dental in Mechanicsburg, Penn., just to get her teeth cleaned. After a long wait, the dentist said the 20-year-old had three cavities and also needed to have her wisdom teeth pulled. She also said Keckler might have oral cancer.
Keckler, who now lives near Washington D.C., recalls the woman talking so loudly that it seemed the whole office could hear. “She was giving this massive disaster scenario. I didn’t believe a thing that she said.”
Keckler went to her dentist regularly, the last time just six months earlier. But a change in her insurance forced her to switch dentists. As she was wondering how she was going to get out of this, the office manager handed her an estimated bill for a little more than $600. Keckler said the manager encouraged her to sign and even to enroll for a special credit card to pay for it all up front.
Angered by what she considered a hard sell, Keckler got up and left and went back to her family dentist. He found no cavities, no need to pull her wisdom teeth and no oral cancer.
Aspen Dental reviewed Keckler’s files and says she was appropriately diagnosed and that other dentists would agree. However, in an interview, Aspen Dental’s Arwinder Judge, the vice president of clinical support, acknowledged that the surface cavities don’t show up in Keckler’s X-rays. The company is relying on the dentist’s notes to support its diagnosis.
Last February, Dr. David Schneider, a dentist in Chevy Chase, Md., examined Keckler and her X-rays at the request of CPI and FRONTLINE. He said there were no cavities, no need to pull her wisdom teeth and no signs of oral cancer.