When LaGrange dentist Chuck Pitts decided to restructure his business in a sagging economy he made a decision that didn’t really make a lot of business sense. He decided to start seeing patients with Medicaid insurance.
With significantly lower payments for the work and a patient load known for not keeping appointments, few dentists take on Medicaid patients. But Pitts believed he could still make a living and treat patients with integrity.
Today, he’s added a second dentist, Jason Lee, to help meet the demand and he’s looking for a third dentist to join the practice that is now 75 percent Medicaid patients.
“I was a longtime general dentist. That was how I started. I took care of kids with Medicaid early on, but then I got busier and busier and chose not to take Medicaid,” Pitts said.
Over time he became known for his restorative dental work — an expensive procedure that is most often not covered by any insurance. A few years ago he started volunteering at the free dental clinic sponsored by First Baptist Church on the Square.
“I saw a significant need there for dental care. It’s not that I didn’t know that, it was just out of sight, out of mind. It made me think of folks a lot less fortunate than those I typically see,” he said. “As the economy tightened, we weren’t as busy as we used to be.”
A week after he qualified to serve Medicaid patients, he had appointments.
“We made a commitment to take care of everybody the same way,” he said.
That means special treatment for children including a playroom and, often, a balloon animal along with their check-ups. The dental staff includes Spanish-speaking hygienists to accommodate everyone.
He’s also begun an additional aspect of his dental practice: education.
“We see a lot of young kids who have had a high sugar diet and minimal care with brushing. I spend every Monday and some Friday’s doing hospital dentistry — mostly for young children with a dozen or so cavities. They have to be put to sleep to take care of that,” he said.
The staff often warns parents against the enemies of healthy teeth: infants going to bed with milk or juice in their bottles; children who eat too much candy and juice; and teenagers who drink daily sodas and eat sticky candy like Gummi bears.
While the payments aren’t as much as he makes on other treatments, Pitts said it has been a good business move.
“You don’t make as much money, but getting paid a smaller fee and having someone in the chair is better than nothing,” he said.
More importantly, though, the shift reflects a personal change for Pitts.
“There was a point personally and professionally when I was more concerned about Chuck than anybody else. When we started caring for these kids, it changed my perspective about what was important,” he said. “I still make mistakes, but I have a new sense of humility that has made me a better person.”
His staff has embraced the change as well.
Star Butler, the appointment coordinator, works with Medicaid patients to let them know that their appointment time is for them and they need to call if they can’t come.
“I understand where they’re coming from. I was raised in an environment like many of our patients have. When they say ‘I don’t have transportation,’ I understand. I’ve been there,” she said. “I’m glad we’re here to help.”