Aspen Dental faces class action suit

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Slideshow: Struggle for affordable dental care

By iWatch News

Forty percent of Americans have a family member who can’t afford to go to the dentist. Private-equity firms have found a lucrative market in this statistic, investing in corporate dental chains to treat people who’ve neglected their teeth.  A Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and FRONTLINE investigation found that the same business model that makes dental chains accessible to people short on cash can also lock people into debt and has led to complaints of patients being overcharged or given unnecessary treatments.

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Aspen Dental markets to people who haven’t been to a dentist in a while. The offices are easy to spot at shopping centers. The chain advertises free exams and $249 dentures

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Theresa Ferritto, 87, had a family dentist who said she needed two teeth pulled. Surviving on $1,300 a month, she feared an oral surgeon would cost too much. So Ferritto went to Aspen Dental instead, assuming from its ads that it would be cheaper. The office outside Cleveland signed her up for a treatment plan four pages long, charging her $7,835 on a credit card. They later reduced her charges to $2,540.

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Heather Haynes, who managed an Aspen Dental office in Illinois, said the company trained her to sell its most expensive products and to get patients to sign up for extensive treatment plans on their first visit. She said the tactics made her lose sleep at night, worried she might be taking advantage of people. The company disputes her account.

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Sarah Keckler went to the dentist regularly but switched to Aspen Dental because of a change in insurance. On the first visit, she was told she had three cavities, needed her wisdom teeth out and might have oral cancer. She went back to her family dentist, who said she had none of those problems. Aspen stands by its diagnosis

Courtesy of Virginia Keckler

Robert Fontana, the founder and CEO of Aspen Dental says his company helps thousands of people with serious tooth ailments. He said he sees letters from patients so grateful that it would make you cry.

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A class-action lawsuit accuses Aspen Dental, one of the nation’s largest corporate-dental chains, of illegally owning dental practices and of deceiving patients.

A joint report by the Center for Public Integrity and PBS FRONTLINE titled “Dollars and Dentists” reported in June that Aspen Dental’s practice of serving patients who cannot afford a dentist has led to complaints of patients being locked into debt as well as being overcharged and given unnecessary treatments.

The lawsuit brought by 11 patients alleges that Aspen Dental owns and controls its 358 dental clinics in violation of laws in 22 states which allow only dentists to own a dental practice. The lawsuit was filed yesterday in federal court in Aspen Dental’s home state of New York.

Aspen Dental said Friday that “the accusations that were made in yesterday’s filing are entirely without merit.” The company is owned by a private-equity firm, Leonard Green & Partners, and markets to patients who often cannot afford to go to a dentist.

The company says that it also provides support services to dental offices owned by local dentists.

“The dentists and staff at Aspen Dental offices around the U.S. provide access to high quality, affordable dental care for millions of patients,” the Syracuse-based company said. “Their singular commitment is to do what’s right for their patients.”

However, attorneys for the patients, Brian Cohen and Jeffrey Norton, say in the lawsuit that Aspen Dental trains the dentists and sets production goals for them, accusing the company of illegally practicing medicine.