JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Each year, thousands of children in Mississippi get crucial dental care from mobile dentistry companies.
One business in particular treated approximately 18,000 students just last year.
However, the owner of that company claims some dentists are breaking their own rules to hurt her business through intimidation and harassment, including a man appointed by the governor to sit on the very board that regulates dental practices for the Magnolia State.
“To have allegations thrown out that that are very hurtful, and try and, you know, slander our company and make us appear to be somebody that we’re not, you try and not take it personal but it is," said Ashley Casey, owner of Smiles to Go, a mobile dentistry operation.
In the span of three months, Casey said she’s had to put up with invasions of privacy and harassment that’s affected her business, all because she owns a mobile dentistry clinic that serves thousands of kids in Mississippi.
The first incident took place in January 2016, when Casey’s employees showed up at Columbus High School to provide dental care for students there.
Other dental assistants showed up, too, according to statements from Casey’s staff, submitted as part of Casey’s complaint to the state dental board.
The school introduced them as “local dental professionals that wanted to observe” Smiles to Go’s “operations.” Casey claims that in doing so, they were violating patient privacy.
“Huge violations occurred, one being HIPAA," Casey said. "We’re trying to protect our patients medical information and they are taking pictures of it.”
At one point, a statement claimed a visitor turned over a list of student names to see who had already been given treatment.
It took several questions before the visiting dental employees identified where they worked.
“That was a huge red flag," Casey said.
Eventually, Casey's employees found out from one "dental professional" that some worked for Dr. David Curtis, a pediatric dentist in Columbus.
3 On Your Side also learned that the wife of another Columbus dentist, Dr. Steven Porter, was also observing students at the high school that day.
One month later, the Lowndes County School District severed its contract with Casey.
An email from the school’s superintendent claimed a local pediatric dentist was afraid students using medicaid or insurance for Smiles to Go wouldn’t be able to use those benefits again for follow-up visits at dental offices, a claim Casey insists is false.
Casey found out that local dentist who talked to the school district was also Dr. Curtis, so she met with the school district.
“He basically said that until I ‘get a blessing from a certain local dentist,’ that I could not come in there," Casey said.
Casey believes any motivation by traditional dentists is purely driven by competition...a turf war of sorts.
Weeks after Casey contract was dropped, an advertisement ran in a Columbus newspaper.
It said “an entity from outside our community” would be charging students for “supposed dental services,” which Casey claims calls into question their standard of care.
The ad also claimed there was no problem with access to dental care in Lowndes County, a statement teacher Terese Wittke doesn’t buy, because many dentists there don’t accept Medicaid.
“I know I have three students that have to go to Louisville all the time to go to a dentist," Wittke said.
Traveling from New Hope to Louisville takes an hour.
It would seem that, for some, including those dependent on Medicare and Medicaid, low-cost dental care is harder to come by.
Casey believes that newspaper ad violates the dental board's advertising regulations.
Of the eight dental practices endorsing that advertisement, one belongs to Dr. Steven Porter, another to Dr. Curtis.
So Casey filed another complaint with the State Board of Dental Examiners to sort all this out.
Later that year, Dr. Porter became a member of the very dental board that was supposed to be investigating events connected to him.
“I’ve had several other ones that will call me and request my schedule of where I’m gonna be," Casey said. "They will say ‘you know, I’ve heard you were in my backyard,’ implying ‘we don’t want you here.’”
Casey and her attorney believe that certain dental board members may want to regulate her out of business.
Dental board attorney Stan Ingram denies that, saying there have been investigations into mobile dentistry in the past due to alleged quality of care issues, but he knows of no recent complaints filed against mobile dentistry offices.
“I’ll be beating the bushes to find one," said Dr. Mark Donald during a meeting of the state dental board last year.
Donald, another dental board member, told those in the public meeting that even though no complaints had been filed a mobile dentistry clinic near him, he was going to do his best to find one.
That clinic: Smiles to Go.
Why is that significant?
The state dental board is a complaint-driven agency.
It can't investigate a dental practice unless a complaint is filed.
Speaking of complaints, to this day, Casey hasn't found out anything about the two she filed more than three years ago.
“Even though I continued to ask about it, nothing had ever been done," Casey said.
That seems to violate the board’s own requirements.
The dental board’s rules of procedure indicate it is supposed to review complaints and determine if they can be investigated “upon receipt," meaning as soon as they get it.
Ingram said both of Casey’s complaints were initially remanded, meaning they can be re-opened.
He wouldn’t say if they were, though; only that the whole process is causing them to look at those complaints again.
He also wouldn’t elaborate on what he meant by “process.”
In the meantime, Casey said they’ll continue to provide preventative care to 350 schools throughout Mississippi, like New Hope High School.
“We had a great experience. We didn’t have any problems. It was very convenient," said parent Rebecca Ward.
3 On Your Side reached out to every dentist mentioned in this story, but only Dr. Porter returned our calls.
He also declined an on-camera interview, instead deferring to the board’s attorney.
At first, Ingram told us that neither Dr. Porter nor his staff were present during that Columbus High School incident.
More than a week later, he revealed that Dr. Porter's wife was there.
“I understand several comments have been made by board members during meetings. What the public needs to know is that the board is made up of eight different individuals with their own practices, etc. Just because one person hypothetically may be critical of mobile dentistry, that’s just one person. I think the board is very objective," Ingram said.