Speaker’s Stand: Behind the Sarrell saga
by Bruce Cunningham
Special to The Star
May 08, 2010 | 3026 views |  8 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Recent articles and editorials in The Anniston Star have unfairly convicted the Alabama dental profession of being greedy and self-serving. It reads like a tale of the good (Sarrell Regional Dental Center — SRDC), the bad (the University of Alabama at Birmingham Dental School) and the ugly (the Alabama Dental Association — ALDA).

There is much more good than just a living saint (Dr. Warren Sarrell) and a nonprofit organization (SRDC) established to improve access to dental care for Medicaid children and indigent adults. There also is an honorable dental profession that has a tradition of championing fluoridation, dental-disease prevention and improvements in access, and a dental school that is nationally recognized for producing well-trained dentists.

There also is more bad and ugly than just us dentists and the dental school. I was the key dentist in establishing the Calhoun County Dental Center in 2003 (later reincorporated as SRDC) to serve Medicaid children and indigent adults. Our plan was to generate enough income as a nonprofit treating Medicaid children to be able to provide some desperately needed dental care for indigent adults.

Instead, revenues are used to provide a high salary for the CEO. In January 2005, when I was vice-chairman of the nonprofit’s board, the CEO was hired for $2,000 per month. By 2007, his total compensation was $151,056, according to tax filings. That same year, other comparably sized health-based nonprofit CEOs were compensated an average of $110,750, according to the online database at Guidestar.org.

How do the SRDC management and administrative costs currently compare with other nonprofits?

Former SRDC employees have told me that revenues are also used to provide financial incentives to increase production by offering bonuses to everyone except the dentists who then feel psychological pressure for high production. Yet, does SRDC have internal controls in place to prevent employed dentists from becoming mercenaries who over-prescribe treatments like notorious Medicaid mills?

SRDC was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation “exclusively to provide dental care to economically disadvantaged children and adults” (Article II, Section 1), and specifically “Medicaid and AllKids eligible patients” (Article II, Section 2). When we were granted nonprofit privileges in 2003, Dr. Sarrell had negotiated a $1 per-year lease for an office in Anniston’s Medical Arts Building, and the Community Foundation spent $430,000 renovating it into a modern dental clinic.

Nonprofit privileges have been abused by SRDC because revenues are being generated from other classes of patients besides Medicaid and All Kids.

Why shouldn’t private practicing dentists be concerned when a nonprofit entity is competing with them for privately insured, private-paying patients? Why should SRDC enjoy nonprofit privileges when it operates like a for-profit business? And why should SRDC even be allowed to do business in Alabama where the law requires that only dentists own a for-profit dental practice?

Even though I am a past president of the dental school alumni association, I have never been involved in the school’s decision-making process. I have, however, been close enough to it for many years to know that the school’s leadership desperately wanted and needed the Bessemer partnership with SRDC. The school’s decision to withdraw was not against children but for the education of their students. We should all applaud UAB for making the painful decision to take the high road.

Can there be a dialogue about renewing the partnership between the UAB dental school and SRDC without lawsuits and threats?

I’m not throwing the first stone; I’m just picking up one of them that has bruised my beloved profession and trying to aim for the rebirth of a nonprofit that is truly a nonprofit, seeking service above profit, refraining from profit activities outside of its mission, and nurturing positive relationships with the dental profession.

Bruce Cunningham is a dentist in Jacksonville.
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Speaker’s Stand: Behind the Sarrell saga by Bruce Cunningham
Special to The Star

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