From The Anniston Star
by Brian Anderson
One of the many rural Alabama areas in need of more dental health providers, Heflin might soon receive relief in the form of a new dental practice. But the area is still far behind in meeting standards for the dental health of its residents.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the statistical area of Cleburne and Calhoun County, which includes Heflin and Anniston, would need six full-time equivalent dental practitioners to eliminate it from a list of areas which have a shortage of dentists providing service for low-income residents in Alabama.
They’re in good company, though. That list includes just about everyone else in the state, too.
Of the 67 counties in Alabama, just Shelby and Madison County meet the criteria to avoid the designation of having a shortage of professional full-time dentists in the area. Outside of Huntsville, however, even Madison is designated as a shortage area, meaning just one county is able to provide enough dentists per low-income population as designated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon at all,” said Dale Quinney, the executive director of Alabama Rural Health Association. “There’s a serious shortage of dentists in the country.”
In Alabama, just one college has a dental program, Quinney said. The University of Alabama at Birmingham admits 55 students every year into its program — or approximately 8 percent of full-time dentists needed in the state to serve low-income populations.
“The greatest single reason they can’t admit more into the program is the people practicing in the state are making so much money they don’t want to leave their practice” to teach at the university, Quinney said. “The other reason is dentists don’t want to strictly serve to low-income people. Medicaid is not paying so well.”
Jeff Parker, however, disagrees. As the CEO of Sarrell Dental Clinic in Anniston, Parker uses a business model whose primary care is for Medicaid children in the state.
“We’ve had 27 consecutive quarters with patient growth,” he said. “Can you name me a company in America, in this economy, that has had 27 consecutive quarters of growth?”
Parker said the growth is proof that the state is in desperate need of dentists providing to Medicaid patients, and if the nonprofit practice in Anniston can afford to pay their dentists and operate 12 offices, there’s no reason why others can’t follow the same model.
The dentist who’ll be providing relief in Heflin is formerly of the Sarrell Clinic, Zackary Jones.
Parker said he’ll be happy if Jones provides enough care in Heflin to drive Sarrell out of Cleburne County. In fact, he said his wish is for more dentists to try to cut into Sarrell’s share of dental care in the area.
“We hope they run us out of business for the right reasons, helping these children,” Parker said. “There are plenty of other places for us to help children in this state.”
Jones declined The Star’s request for an interview.
Other encouraging signs for the state may exist in Dothan, where the Southeast Regional Medical Center plans to have medical classes for the first time in 2013, Quinney said, and is hopeful after talks with Dr. Craig Lens in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, dental classes will be next.
“I had a conversation with him about the critical shortage we have of dentists,” Quinney said. Attempts by The Star to reach Lens Friday were unsuccessful.
“He told me there are plans for a dental school,” Quinney said. “There’s no target date for when this would start, but it’s in the works.”
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546.
Read the full story on The Anniston Star Website