Friday, October 17, 2014

The Aspen Dental Scam

Like so many sectors of our economy, there is a business that is taking over the dental frontier. Several years ago I started hearing about a company called Aspen Dental that was building new dental offices in larger cities across the Midwest. The tout that the initial exam and x-rays as being free to get you in the door. Until recently, it didn't matter in our part of rural Iowa because there were no chains open within comfortable travel distances but that changed about a month ago when they opened up an office in our town.

Now I have a private dentist in a town 20 minutes away where I used to live that I like very much and have no intentions of leaving. But then I have dental insurance and my biannual cleanings are covered 100%. My mother-in-law is a recent immigrant and until she receives citizenship status, she had no insurance, especially dental insurance. So when she had a bad tooth ache, we thought we would take her to the new Aspen Dental here in town to get x-rayed and recommendations on what to do.

In order to set up a new appointment, you have to call their corporate office or go online and schedule it. We did the former and could be seen that very afternoon. I drove my mother-in-law to the office and promptly at her scheduled time, they escorted her and four other people all into the five chairs. After about 30 minutes, people started paying and leaving but the hygienists now free, just idly walked around and talked until the top of the hour when they escorted a new batch of people into the chairs. It was certainly different than I was used too but I didn't really have a problem with that. What I did have a problem with happened next.

When my mother-in-law came out and was escorted to the managers office to discuss her 'treatment plan' as the call it, I joined her to act as an interpreter. She has dentures on both upper and lower jaws and the tooth that was causing her problems was on the lower jaw and also the anchor for her dentures. The 'treatment plan' was that her gum around the tooth was infected and that the tooth needed to be pulled, along with the anchor tooth on the upper jaw that wasn't hurting her and then new dentures created for both. The sum for this treatment plan was staggering.

They wanted to schedule her for an appointment in two days to begin her treatment plan. When my mother-in-law asked for something to treat the infection, they gave her a prescription for Tylenol 3 which is a prescription pain killer and would definitely wouldn't do anything for the infection. That should have been my first clue.

The second sign was that they immediately printed off a bill showing the free services that my mother-in-law had just received along with a line item showing the future services and the staggering sum and inquiring how I wanted to pay for the procedures yet to happen. If I didn't have the money, they would be more than happy to sign me up for their own credit card which they would put the balance on for no interest for the next few months. The hairs on the back of my neck went up at all this and I politely said that I would be paying for the procedures AFTER they were completed two days from now. There were several charges that seemed superfluous on the bill that we questioned and each time, the manager immediately took them off when we questioned whether they were necessary and printed out a new bill. On the fourth bill, the sum was still staggering but quite a bit less than the initial bill. It still looked like a bill and like something requiring immediate payment but I just thanked them and we went out the door.

When I got home, I started doing some internet research, something I should have done beforehand, and found literally thousands of bad reviews of Aspen Dental of people having similar experiences. Most of the people said that Aspen Dental wanted to pull teeth that didn't need to be pulled so that they could make new dentures for them which evidently is their bread and butter part of the business. People were charged for unnecessary procedures and asked to pay for future services or sign up for credit cards. If people did the latter and then didn't use those services, they had very hard times getting their money reimbursed and then suffered the problem of having bad credit if they didn't pay their credit card bill. I realized at that point that my relationship with Aspen Dental via my mother-in-law was over. I was going to get her dental records and take her to my private dentist 20 miles away.

I showed up right at nine when their sign said they opened this past Wednesday. There was a young lady already standing outside the door so I surmised that they hadn't unlocked the door. Ten minutes go by and I finally went and checked the door myself just to make sure it was locked. I mentioned about how perhaps the door had been stuck and we didn't realize it but it was most definitely locked. So we waited some more. Fifteen minutes after the posted opening time, I knocked on the door and windows and peered inside but got no response. Twenty minutes into it, a UPS driver showed up trying to deliver packages but couldn't get in either so I decided to take action.

I called the phone number on the door but it leads me to the robotic operator at the corporate offices. All avenues for returning customers led me to the voice mail of the local managers office. So I fibbed and said I was a new customer which eventually led me to customer service at their corporate office. When I at last got a human, I'll call her Cheryl, I asked if she could tell me if the office in my town was still in business because it was now 25 minutes past opening and the door was still locked despite there being lots of cars behind the building. She said it was still open and that she would call them on a private line and see what the problem seemed to be. After ten minutes on hold Cheryl said she couldn't reach anyone which was very odd and that they should be open by now. She took my name and phone number and said she would call me back just as soon as she was able to reach someone and find out the problem.

I had now invested 40 minutes of my time waiting for an open office to unlock their door so I decided I would try one more thing. I walked around to the back of the building where I saw an employee entrance with a security camera above the door and a card swipe pad right next to the handle. I was pretty sure I would find another locked door as I reached out and turned the handle but much to my surprise the door opened right up.

As I opened the door, I could hear laughter on the other side and when I looked in, I saw about a dozen startled people all peering at me from a table in a room on the opposite side of the hallway from the door. A managerial looking fellow jumped up from the table asking me what I was doing and then a second later if he could help me. I told him that yes he could help me. I have been waiting for 40 minutes since their sign said they have been open and yet the door was still locked. When would he actually be open. The managerial guy took on a nasty tone and said that they were in the middle of a meeting and that they would be open when their meeting was done. With that he grabbed the door, closed it and I could hear a lock engage.

I was pretty miffed at this point and my phone range as I was walking around to the front of the building. I answered and it was their corporate office calling back to see if the door was still locked. Cheryl said that they were still trying to reach the office and that they should be open because their computer showed two appointments at nine o'clock. I told Cheryl of my encounter and what I had been told and she got very apologetic and said that she would take immediate action to pass this up the chain of command so that it wouldn't happen again. She took my information down so she could call me back in the future and we hung up.

I told the lady out front what had happened out back and she shook her head. She told me she was just trying to get her records after a bad experience on Friday and she didn't plan on every coming back. I told her I was also in the same boat. Just then after 45 minutes past nine when they advertised that they were open, one of the started people came and unlocked the door. No apologies were issued to either of us. When my turn came and I requested my mother-in-law's records, I wasn't surprised that they wouldn't give them to me even though I signed the form two days priors saying I was authorized to obtain them. My mother-in-law had to physically be present in order for me to obtain the records which I said kind of defeated the purpose of even having said form giving others permission to obtain her records.

So later my mother-in-law showed up and they gave her the records but I didn't go inside that time in case they recognize me and give her a hard time. As I write this she is at my private dentist with my wife and I'm sure probably getting a lot better service and I'm guessing probably some antibiotics for the infected gum and options that don't involve extracting two teeth and building an entire new set of dentures for her. They were also probably open as advertised and not laughing it up in the back while people waited for them to sometime open up the doors.


sage said...

Wow! One of the things I hate about moving is finding a new dentist as I had good ones in the last two locations I've lived.

Ed said...

Sage - I always tell people it takes quite awhile to train a dental hygienist! The one I have knows me very well and I would hate to give her up. That is why I drive quite a ways to see her when there are many much closer.

Tewshooz said...

What a horrible experience! Scammers are always out there waiting to plunder us. I have had the same dentist for 25 years...I told him that if he ever moved, I would have to move, too. lol.

Leigh said...

This seems to reflect the change in business ethics we've seen over the past number of years. It's getting so the good ones are far and few between.

Anonymous said...

In one way you cannot blame them for the system is designed in such a way as to make it very attractive to do that.
Not long ago when local doctors were a bit stuck for cash they would begin a wholesale extraction of tonsils.
But it does seem their business model is sailing very close to the legal wind, or at the very least the license they operate under.

Ed said...

Tewshooz - I think I might consider the same if my dentist moved.

Leigh - I've noticed that too... unfortunately.

Vince - I'm guessing everything they wanted to do was legal but it certainly didn't build trust with me which is what they need to do to keep me as a customer.