Time runs out on dental care
Elaine Harper, a 70-year-old school bus driver, needed a lot of dental work she couldn’t afford.
Last March, Harper believed her prayers were answered when she saw a giant billboard along U.S. Highway 6&50 advertising a new dental service that offered one year’s worth of dental work in exchange for a single payment of $900.
The deal at Grand Dental, 1035 Grand Ave., was apparently too good to last. Harper made the $900 payment, but before all the dental work she needed could be scheduled, the program was canceled.
The billboard Harper saw advertised that in exchange for the up-front payment, Grand Dental would provide all the teeth cleanings, fillings and other non-major dental services she needed for one year.
Each program member could expect two teeth cleanings and as many needed fillings as Grand Dental could schedule into a treatment plan, said Heather Still, Grand Dental office manager.
“If they needed fillings, we would put that in their treatment plan and hopefully, we would get to that,” Still said.
Harper later learned that major work under the plan — like crowns and root canals — would be performed for an additional payment of $100 each.
Harper needed three crowns and at least two fillings, services that would have cost more than $900 at most other dentist offices.
Recognizing a good deal when she saw one, Harper signed up for Grand Dental’s My Personal Dentist program in March. The $900 she paid amounted to about one month’s earnings from her job as a bus driver.
Harper said Grand Dental presented her with a receipt but no paperwork explaining the My Personal Dentist program. More than 300 other people also signed up, according to Still.
All received paperwork explaining the program, she said.
The program was rolled out in two phases. The first phase, launched in December 2012, required members to pay a flat fee of $900 and limited the number of major procedures they could receive to six, Still said.
Apparently, the program was so popular Grand Dental was forced to change it after 90 days or face the possibility of significant losses.
The second phase of the program offered significantly less value. Launched in March 2013, the revised program limited the number of major procedures a member could receive to three and required payment of additional fees for major work, Still said.
Whether the patient started in phase one or phase two — as Harper did — program services were supposed to be available for a full year from the date of sign-up, Still said.
“It was going to be a full year, however, we had to end the program a little bit sooner because we were overwhelmed,” she said.
Signing up 300 patients at up-front payments of $900 each means Grand Dental would have collected about $270,000 through the My Personal Dentist program, plus added payments for major dental work.
About six months after Harper signed up, Dr. Eric Benefield sent a letter to My Personal Dentist members dated Aug. 22.
“We began this trial in December (2012) without having any idea at all how things would work out,” Benefield wrote.
The letter said appointments for My Personal Dentist members were booked through the end of the year. Moreover, the program would be discontinued after Dec. 31, he wrote.
In other words, for those without appointments already scheduled after Aug. 22, the program was over.
Officials with Grand Dental say the program was terminated because Benefield was overwhelmed with patients, and because the value of the work provided exceeded the $900 deal.
Benefield was unable to see regular pay-as-you-go patients, many with third-party dental insurance, and also fit in all of the pre-paid My Personal Dentist patients seeking appointments.
Harper said she sometimes had to wait two months between appointments.
“I know it has been inconvenient for many of our patients to have to wait a long time between appointments,” Benefield wrote. “I apologize if you have had to wait a long time to get an appointment in my schedule. As of (Aug. 22), all of our My Personal Dentist appointment spots in the doctor’s schedule are full.”
In addition, the value of dental services provided to program members exceeded the $900 collected, Still said.
Members were getting “a ton” of free dental work, she said.
“People were getting thousands of dollars worth of work for a very little amount of money up front,” Still said.
Harper received two crowns and two teeth cleanings before the My Personal Dentist program was canceled, Still said. In his Aug. 22 letter, Benefield valued the services he provided Harper at $2,988.
“I never authorized Grand Dental to talk about my health records with anyone,” Harper said.
She still needs two fillings and a crown, Harper said.
Benefield’s letter suggested that if the dental work Harper needed was not complete and no appointment was scheduled, whatever work remained would not be performed without additional payment.
Still contends Benefield is willing to work with disgruntled patients.
“A few people (complained),” she said. “However, a lot of people I think were very happy with what they did receive because they did receive a lot of work for $900.”
Still said Harper visited Grand Dental Jan. 9 and received a free teeth cleaning.
“She did not give us a chance to talk with her,” Still said of Harper. “She just came in half-cocked and just upset and we didn’t even get a chance to speak with her. She did not want us to.”
Harper said she asked the staff at Grand Dental to give Benefield a message.
“I said, ‘Tell him to look up the word integrity in the dictionary because that’s the way I was raised,’ ” Harper said.
Benefield did not respond to requests for comment.
Dr. Quinn Dufurrena, executive director of the Colorado Dental Association, said this is the first time he’s run across a situation like this in his 30 years of dental practice.
“The problem here is, there’s a huge risk,” he said.
The flaw in a program like Benefield’s is that unlike regular dental insurance, the risk of loss is not being shared across a large enough population, Dufurrena said.
“You’re basically having people sign up that they know before they go in there that (they) need all this dental work,” he said.
“I think it was destined to fail,” Dufurrena said.
Consumers of dental services who believe a dentist may have violated Colorado law should file a complaint with the Board of Dental Examiners, said Cory Everett, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies.
Everett declined to comment on Harper’s situation.
Harper said a person who answered the phone at the Board of Dental Examiners in Denver told her the board would not investigate her complaint and the she would need to file a civil lawsuit to get resolution.
Harper said a person who answered the telephone at the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office told her the district attorney would not investigate her complaint unless she filed a report with the Grand Junction Police Department.
The person suggested she file a civil lawsuit, Harper said.
Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, urged any consumer who believes they are a victim of a deceptive trade practice to file a complaint with the Office of Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section.
Tyler declined to comment on Harper’s situation.
As of Monday, Harper said she had not decided whether to file a complaint with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, but will pursue a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regarding the unauthorized disclosure of her personal health information to The Daily Sentinel.
Harper said she will not make a report to the Grand Junction Police Department.