With the sluggish economy hurting private dental practices, the Anniston-based Sarrell is experiencing a boom in dentists looking for extra work, allowing the clinic to expand operations and continue its mission to serve more needy children around the state.
Sarrell CEO Jeffery Parker said the clinic now has contracts with more than 40 dentists, a record for the organization.
“We’ve been able to reject dentists and be more scrutinizing,” he said. “Before, we always struggled to find enough dentists.”
Parker said the weak economy has helped Sarrell become more successful.
“Oh, absolutely … private practices are down because of the economy,” he said.
Since more people are unemployed, fewer can afford health care and, in turn, are making fewer visits to dentists’ offices.
Tara Wheeler graduated from dental school in June, but instead of entering a private practice, she chose to work for the nonprofit Sarrell clinic.
The other six members of her graduating class did the same, partially because of the clinic’s work with underserved children, but also because the recession has left them with few options.
“It was partly because the economy was down,” Wheeler said. “A lot of us are looking for extra work.”
Wheeler, who graduated from the University of Alabama in Birmingham School of Dentistry and lives in Birmingham, signed on with Sarrell July 1 and has rotated among the organization’s various clinics as needed ever since.
Despite Sarrell being a nonprofit, she said her pay has been competitive with that from more traditional private clinics.
“It is very good, excellent compensation,” Wheeler said.
She said her experience with Sarrell has been better than expected.
“The environment seemed good before I got there … there was plenty of draw because of their good work,” she said. “But it has been much better than I had originally thought. I never expected to enjoy working with kids this much.”
Ryan Draiss of Helena began working with Sarrell on Dec. 1 almost exclusively. He had previously worked with the nonprofit Health Services Inc. in Birmingham, but decided to switch mainly because of financial issues.
“Sarrell offers better compensation,” he said. “Plus, I wanted to learn more about treating kids.”
Sarrell focuses on serving underprivileged children on Medicaid – children whose parents would be unable to afford the cost of care at many private dental practices.
“There is a need from these underserved children and, because of the economic conditions, that need continues to grow,” Parker said.
Through a combination of focusing on an underserved part of the population and Sarrell driving down its own costs, the clinic has been successful ever since it opened its first operation in donated space at Regional Medical Center five years ago.
Parker said through Sarrell’s efforts, the average Medicaid cost for patient per visit has decreased from $328 in 2005 to $125 today.
“And we continue to draw down the cost of care,” he said.
Due to its success, Sarrell now has 12 clinics around the state, including a bus that carries dentists and equipment to communities. Two of the clinics opened in Clanton and Pinson this year. Another clinic is scheduled to open in Attalla in February.
“We will continue to open new offices at an accelerated rate in 2011 … between five and seven, all in Alabama,” Parker said.
Sarrell served approximately 3,500 patients its first year. Parker expects that number to be 80,000 children for 2010 alone. The clinics’ influx of patients has increased every year, up 40 percent in 2007, 50 percent in 2008, 61 percent in 2009 and 48 percent for 2010.
Sarrell’s success, however, was hindered temporarily earlier this year when UAB removed its dental students from the clinic, citing problems with supervision of the students as the reason. The Sarrell clinic had been using UAB students to keep costs down and provide them with educational experience.
“It hurt us drastically, crippled us for six to eight weeks,” Parker said. “It affected between 6,000 and 8,000 patients … we did not have enough dentists to serve them.”
Parker noted that an influx of professional dentists in recent months due to the economy made up for the loss of the students.
“Most organizations would have been crippled under that blow, but we picked ourselves back up, and the children and the people will continue to benefit,” Parker said.
Parker has denied UAB’s claims, saying the students were removed because of pressure from dental alumni and the Alabama Dental Association upset over the nonprofit clinic’s rapid growth. Sarrell filed a lawsuit against the ALDA in May, claiming the organization has illegally tried to put the clinic out of business.
In addition to the lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating allegations that the dental association engaged in anti-competitive practices against Sarrell.
Attempts to reach ALDA interim executive director Zack Studstill on Thursday were unsuccessful.
However, in a July e-mail to The Star, Studstill stated, “The Alabama Dental Association is dedicated to ensuring all children and adults have access to the highest possible care and will vigorously defend itself from baseless legal challenges.”
Parker alleged that in addition to the weak economy, the suit and the FTC’s investigation have helped Sarrell recruit more dentists.
“We feel it is because they are no longer being harassed,” he said.
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.