Dentists protest expansion of health department clinic

J. H. Osborne • Feb 20, 2007 at 11:27 AM

KINGSPORT - Citing encroachment complaints from a private dental practice, Sullivan County officials are backing off - at least temporarily - on plans to offer a children's dental clinic at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department's office near downtown Kingsport.

Dentists Angel and Clayton Mullins, who are married, have complained to county officials that expansion of the health department's dental services for children threatens their private practice, Watauga Dental Center, on Watauga Street.

Angel Mullins attended the Sullivan County Commission's monthly meeting on Tuesday to bring attention to the couple's opposition to the health department's plan to provide dental care for children at the department's Kingsport office.

The health department offers dental care to children on TennCare and to those who pay cash.

Angel and Clayton Mullins say they and their partners opened Watauga Dental Center in May 2006 to serve the same population - and that the practice will and can provide dental care to the children in question.

In answer to the Mullinses' complaints, Mayor Steve Godsey said he and the health department's director have agreed to idle the county's plans to offer dental care for children in Kingsport.

Godsey said the aim is to give the private sector a chance to provide the services - and if that proves successful, the county can take another look at how to proceed.

Godsey said he'll bring a formal proposal to do such to county commissioners next month.

"We don't want to be seen as competing with the private sector," Godsey said.

Health Department Director Gary Mayes said his office is in the process of sending letters to all local dentists who accept TennCare to see if they are accepting new patients - especially younger children, who are sometimes more challenging to have as patients. A list of those accepting new patients will be compiled and distributed to parents who contact the health department seeking dental treatment for their children, Mayes said.

Last year, the commission approved funding to expand the health department's children's dental clinic by offering dental care at the Kingsport location.

The plan was to have the new services up and running by last month.

Mayes presented an update on the planned expansion to county commissioners last month.

The health department's children's dental clinic stays booked about three months in advance, and sometimes it takes days for its patients to secure even an emergency visit, Mayes said.

And the health department has a hard time finding local dentists to take emergency cases any quicker, he said.

During discussion of the issue Tuesday, several commissioners said they agree government shouldn't hamper private practices - but the county's foremost concern should be making sure the dental care is accessible to the county's children who need it.

This year's county budget includes funding intended to expand the health department's children's dental clinic program by adding more personnel and more space.

Mayes said the additional funding - about $183,000 - was to add a chair to the dental clinic's Blountville location, and for the first time place two chairs at the health department's Kingsport office at Wilcox Drive and East Sullivan Street.

The health department's dental program serves patients up to but not including the age of 21.

Last May, when the County Commission was first looking at the proposed expansion of services, the dental clinic had averaged 270 appointments per month since it opened Aug. 30, 2004, Mayes said.

The health department operates two medical offices - one in Blountville and one in downtown Kingsport. The current dental clinic is in an annex near the Blountville medical office.

Dental care has been identified by the health department as the number one health care need in the county.

For more information about the Sullivan County Regional Health Department visit www.sullivanhealth.org.

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