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Arkansas Orthodontist Wants Dental Board To (Em)brace Economic Liberty

By Matt Miller

Dr. Ben Burris is a licensed dentist and orthodontist who owns Braces By Burris, one of the largest orthodontic practices in the U.S. He has 11 offices throughout Arkansas and employs more than 100 people. In part because of his success, it is important to Dr. Burris that he give back to his community. In 2013, he started offering low-cost teeth cleanings to people who could not otherwise afford them. But within weeks of starting the program, the Arkansas State Board of Dental Examiners threatened to revoke both his dental and orthodontist licenses. Why? Because the state flat-out bans licensed dental specialists, like orthodontists, from doing even simple dental work outside of their specialty. Seven other states have similar laws that force orthodontists and other dental specialists to strictly limit their practice to their area of specialization.

Dr. Burris has long been troubled by the large number of Americans who cannot afford dental care. In 2008, he established Smile for a Lifetime, which provides free braces to kids who cannot afford them. Smile for a Lifetime has grown rapidly. It now has over 150 chapters across the country and gives away approximately $6 million in free braces every year.

Smile for a Lifetime has been a huge success. Now Dr. Burris wants to address a bigger problem. He estimates that 50 percent of Arkansans do not receive regular dental care. In an effort to change that, Dr. Burris started offering teeth cleanings for $99 for adults and $69 for kids. This was approximately one-third to one-half the normal price for individuals without insurance.

Within weeks of offering his low-cost cleanings, Dr. Burris was contacted by the Dental Board and informed that his cleanings violated Arkansas law. By offering teeth cleanings at his orthodontics office, Dr. Burris was risking his license without even knowing it. At a hearing before the Board, Dr. Burris was informed that his dental and orthodontic licenses would be in “extreme jeopardy” if he did not stop offering the cleanings.

That would ruin Braces By Burris and put Dr. Burris’ 100-plus employees out of work. Faced with this threat, he agreed to suspend the program.

Studies estimate that the price of dental care is driven up by 12 percent simply because of unnecessary government restrictions on who can provide services. Dr. Burris tried to break the old model. Then Arkansas threatened to destroy him for it. Now he is fighting back. He is joined by his colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Gohl. She is a former Navy dentist and licensed orthodontist who was told she could not even participate in charity dental work because she has an orthodontist license in addition to her dental license. Bizarrely, general dentists, who receive less training than orthodontists, can perform any kind of dental work, including orthodontics and other complex procedures that are normally performed by specialists. This scheme—which is as senseless as it sounds—does nothing to protect the public and everything to protect general dentists, who want to serve as the gatekeepers for their patients’ dental care.

Dr. Burris and Dr. Gohl have joined with IJ to sue the Arkansas Dental Board because the government cannot prevent people from doing work that they are perfectly qualified to do. If we are successful, it will mean that more medical professionals across the state will be able to put their skills to work providing services to those in need.

Matt Miller is the executive director of IJ Texas.

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