RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — An expensive fight between North Carolina dentists and companies that help manage dental practices reached a truce Wednesday in the session's final days as scaled-back legislation governing their relationships was put on the fast track.
The House voted unanimously Wednesday evening for a bill labeled as a compromise by legislators and lobbyists representing both dental service organizations and the North Carolina Dental Society.
"This bill is a good step in the right direction," Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, a dentist, told House colleagues earlier in the day.
The agreement, first unveiled in a House committee, was reached after months of negotiations and advocacy that saw the hiring of several outside lobbyists and several hundred thousand dollars spent on TV ads and mailers by each side. Out-of-state organizations interested in entering or expanding into North Carolina's dental market have watched the debate closely.
Dental service organization boosters say the firms help dentists control patient costs by handling paperwork for things such as purchasing and billing. Society leaders are worried some of these groups are essentially controlling dental practices and making medical decisions for patients in the name of cost savings.
The bill, now going to the Senate and likely heading to Gov. Beverly Perdue's desk in the coming days, will require the State Board of Dental Examiners to adopt rules giving greater regulatory oversight of the contracts that dentists reach with the management companies in the future.
Jones said the bill will clarify existing dental law and attempt to reduce litigation between the state board, which currently reviews the management contracts that dentists are entering. The measure will require contracts to include warnings encouraging dentists to get legal advice before signing them.
The final bill left out details on exactly how those contracts would be scrutinized further, leaving it to a six-member task force that will include two people connected to dental service organizations. The dental examiner board, which also licenses dentists, will receive the task force recommendations in January, but it doesn't have to follow the task force's suggestions.
The bill moves "the process forward and gave us some assurances that there are going to be the appropriate patient protections in place while at the same time allowing dental service organizations to operate in this state," said Dr. Alec Parker, executive director of the 3,600-member society.
Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor, ex-state Republican Party chairman and lobbyist for the service organization industry, said the task force will attempt to ensure proposed rules will promote dentistry and alternate business models within the industry.
Several management companies formed a political group called the Alliance for Access to Dental Care and hired Fetzer and nine other lobbyists, according to the North Carolina Secretary of State's Office. Former Republican National Committee chairman and ex-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour visited the Legislative Building earlier this week, lobbying on behalf of the Ohio-based Dental Group Practice Association.
The Senate approved a bill in 2011 backed by the society and opposed by dental service organizations. A House study committee meeting before the session began in May failed to reach a compromise.
In the meantime, the Alliance reported spending about $370,000 on several television ads in March that urged voters to oppose the Senate bill, but it continued to air commercials into June. The society ran its own TV ad but it didn't spend as much as the Alliance. Both groups had political action committees that gave more than $200,000 combined in the first 3½ months of this year, nearly all of it going to General Assembly candidates.
Lobbyists on both sides of the issue had been holed up within the Legislative Building halls for the past few days to negotiate an agreement. The extensive time together has been a good thing, Fetzer said.
"Both sides have an enhanced appreciation of what the other does and have gotten to know each other," he said. "There's a much greater sense of trust and collaboration and less tension."