Representatives from the University of Florida, which operates two clinics that serve low-income patients similar to Sarrell, visited the Anniston nonprofit last week to learn its business practices, which they will in turn apply to one of their clinics to make it more efficient.
“We’re honored that one of the top dental schools in the country would come look to us,” said Jeffery Parker, CEO of Sarrell.
Sarrell recently concluded a nearly year-long struggle with the Alabama Dental Association and the state’s dental regulatory authority, the Alabama Board of Dental Examiners, over the existence of its clinics. Sarrell faced a legal challenge from the board and claimed the association was engaging in anti-competitive practices. One new state law and a Federal Trade Commission investigation later and Sarrell is now operating its 12 clinics without complaint — even agreeing to wipe the slate clean with the Dental Association by dropping a lawsuit against it for the alleged anti-competitive practices.
Frank Catalanotto, professor and chair of the Department of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Science at the University of Florida, does not expect his school’s clinics to face similar problems from the Florida Dental Association as changes are made to make them more like Sarrell.
For one thing, he said, the clinics have already won a battle against private dentists in the state when they first opened in the late ’90s.
“We’ve already had those troubles and beaten them back,” Catalanotto said. “The FTC intervened and so the problem stopped.”
Catalanotto said he did not expect any future backlash from private dentists, either, mainly because there were no plans to expand the university’s clinical operations.
“Originally the Florida Dental Association thought we would take business from private dentists,” he said. “But over time I think they realized that we were dealing with a segment of the population that was not being treated.”
Attempts to reach a representative from the Florida Dental Association were unsuccessful.
Parker claimed fear of lost business was why the Alabama Dental Association tried to allegedly stifle Sarrell’s growth last year by pressuring the University of Alabama at Birmingham to remove students from its clinics. The FTC ended its investigation of the Dental Association’s alleged anti-competitive practices in July, determining no action against the organization was needed.
Attempts to reach an Alabama Dental Association representative were unsuccessful.
Lisa Jefferson, department business manager for the University of Florida’s dental school, said a scheduling and call center would be created at the university’s clinic that is like Sarrell’s.
“Right now we have the traditional receptionist at the front desk,” Jefferson said. “This will dedicate two people to doing nothing but talking to patients, scheduling them and checking up on them.”
Jefferson said changes would be made to the clinic’s operations to make it more efficient like Sarrell.
“We’ll add runners, who ensure the rooms are being cleaned and ensure patients are ready so there is no downtime on room in between operations,” she said. “That way we’ll be able to provide better service to patients.”
The Florida clinics have good reason to mimic Sarrell’s business practices. Sarrell is currently the main provider of dental care in Alabama for children on Medicaid and has had continuous growth since its first clinic opened in 2005, Parker said.
In its first year, Sarrell served 3,500 children. Parker said he projects the clinic will serve more than 100,000 children by the end of 2011.
Star staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561.