Alabama governor tours Anniston nonprofit dental clinic
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 27, 2012 | 6945 views |  0 comments | 74 74 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Robert Bentley had his own dermatology practice, he says, Medicaid patients would show up for their appointments only about half of the time.

Now that he’s governor of Alabama, Bentley has a new incentive to get those appointments filled.

Bentley and a handful of other state leaders made the trip to Anniston Thursday to tour the Sarrell Dental Clinic, a nonprofit clinic that serves Medicaid patients at a per-visit cost well below the average.

“If everybody would provide care like this,” Bentley told Sarrell CEO Jeffery Parker, “we could lower the cost of medical care.”

Sarrell, with headquarters on 10th Street near Regional Medical Center, grew from a single clinic to a 13-clinic network that covers half the state in the last seven years. The business model: Provide service to indigent patients who qualify for Medicaid or ALLKids, the state’s health insurance program for children.

Studies conducted before the clinic’s opening suggested that thousands of Alabamians had access to those programs, but couldn’t find a dentist who served Medicaid patients — or didn’t know where to look.

Parker, the clinic’s CEO, said the goal has always been to provide quality dental and eye care for people who otherwise would not be served.

“We treat each patient like they’re our brother or sister, son or daughter,” he said.

But among those in Bentley’s entourage, the focus was on the clinic’s bottom line — and its implications for Medicaid.

In recent years, Parker said, the clinic has reduced its patient costs from $328 per visit to $129 per visit.

“Organizations like this one are doing it right,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who accompanied Bentley on the tour. “They’re keeping the cost low. We need to expand that approach into other areas of medicine.”

Medicaid blew a huge hole in the state budget in 2011. When expected federal assistance for the state-run program failed to materialize, legislators had to find an additional $300 million to keep the program funded. According to figures from the state Medicaid agency, the program will consume a third of the state’s 2012 budget.

Bodyguards and aides to the governor crowded the narrow hallways of Sarrell as Parker led Bentley through, explaining how he kept costs down.

“A clinic is like an airline,” Parker said, motioning to an appointment scheduling chart. “If there’s a seat on a plane that is not utilized, the airline loses money.”

Cancelled appointments cost clinics money, Parker said. He said the clinic has managed to get Medicaid patients to honor most of their appointments by understanding the patients’ needs.

People in poverty often have trouble arranging transportation to the doctor, Parker said, so Sarrell works around that.

“If a client arrives at the end of the day, we turn the lights back on and open our doors again,” he said. “We don’t say, you have to come back in January for a new appointment.”

Parker said the clinic also saves health care costs by working on preventive care. Every clinic has an outreach director who speaks about dental care in schools. Patients who come to Sarrell for a dental exam or an eye exam will have their blood pressure and other health indicators checked — something more commonly done at a general practitioner’s office.

Parker introduced Bentley to a pair of medical technicians and told him how they did a routine blood pressure check on a patient. The check led to the discovery of a dangerous heart problem, Parker said.

Bentley thanked Parker and the technicians for the blood pressure checks.

“If you weren’t doing this, it wouldn’t get done,” he said.

The governor was careful, however, when asked what lessons Sarrell held for public health care policy.

“This is an example of what managed care is supposed to do,” Bentley said, praising Sarrell as a successful nonprofit without elaborating on whether the visit inspired any policy ideas.

Others are looking to Sarrell as a health policy bellwether. Parker said the producers of the public television documentary series Frontline spent 11 hours at the clinic, and will make it the subject of a documentary in coming months. The University of Florida’s dental school has sent representatives to visit Sarrell several times, and Parker said he has also heard from prominent nonprofits.

Parker met with Bentley, Marsh and his aides privately for about 15 minutes. Parker said he didn’t request anything from the governor.

“There wasn’t an ask,” he said. “We’re just glad the governor could come here. There’s a lot of bad news coming out of Anniston right now, and this is a place where something truly positive is happening.”

Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.
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