4 Investigates: State leaders weigh legality of do-it-yourself teeth straightening | KOB 4
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4 Investigates: State leaders weigh legality of do-it-yourself teeth straightening

Nathan O'Neal
September 09, 2019 06:29 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— Direct to consumer at-home teeth straightening kits may be affordable and convenient, but in New Mexico there is much debate about whether the business is legal.

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Think of it like do-it-yourself dentistry. 

The advertisements claim you can straighten your teeth with no need to see a dentist in person. However, in New Mexico, some dental professionals question whether the new approach to dentistry is even legal. 

Smile Direct Club is a Nashville-based company offering people across the country plastic teeth aligners via online orders, traveling buses and —in some cases— brick and mortar “Smile Shops.”

Here’s how it works: One option is you order the kit online, make your own dental molds, mail them in and wait for Smile Direct Club to develop a treatment plan and ship your aligners. Another option is to show up in person to a Smile Shop or a traveling bus where a worker takes 3-D images of your teeth. After that — no follow up visits are required. 

Across the country, some customers have complained about the teeth-straightening company. Despite its “A” rating with the Better Business Bureau, the BBB tracked more than a thousand customer complaints over the last three years. 

“The gap looked bigger than when I started,” said former Smile Direct Club customer John Kerwin, who detailed his experience with the company on his YouTube Channel.

“I lost $2,000 and a year and a half trying to fix my teeth,” said Kerwin. 

Orthodontists across the country — including Dr. Taylor Usitalo in Albuquerque — warn about the risks of moving teeth without X-Rays and without in-person follow ups. 

“If that step is not taken or if any of the diagnostic steps are missed there could be some potential complications that could be irreversible to the patient’s bite, to their teeth and to the overall health of their oral structures,” said Dr. Usitalo. 

The 4 Investigates team sent a staffer to get a 3-D image scan at a Smile Shop located inside an Albuquerque CVS. The worker told the 4 Investigates staffer what was happening at that location is “teledentistry.” The worker also said the 3-D images they took would be sent to Dr. Jeffrey Sulitzer — a doctor they claimed is based in Nashville. That’s not the only time the 4 Investigates team heard Sulitzer’s name mentioned. 

Outside a mall in Santa Fe, the KOB 4 Investigates team tracked down a traveling Smile Direct Club bus. Our team encountered a worker wearing a Smile Direct Club jacket who was working out of the company bus. 

WORKER: “I don’t work for Smile Direct Club. I work under a doctor named Dr. Sulitzer. He’s actually going to be your appointed orthodontist. 

4 INVESTIGATES STAFFER: Who is it? 

WORKER: Dr. Sulitzer… Jeffrey Sulitzer. 

4 INVESTIGATES STAFFER: He works in town? Or? 

WORKER: He works in the west coast. 

The 4 Investigates team researched Dr. Sulitzer. He is listed as the lead doctor for Smile Direct Club and he’s a licensed dentist in multiple states, including New Mexico. 

A Smile Direct Club spokesperson said a network of 240 dentists across the country develop and oversee the treatment plans. However, the company refused to disclose the names of the dentists they work with, other than Dr. Sulitzer. That made it impossible for the 4 Investigates team to conduct any sort of research on who else is providing care. 

A LEGAL GREY AREA 

The American Association of Orthodontists has lodged complaints with 36 state dental boards, including New Mexico.

An attorney from the association — Andrew Wiltsch — spoke up at the most recent dental board meeting in Albuquerque, claiming companies like Smile Direct Club are operating illegally in New Mexico. 

“The AAO just urges that you take a look and investigate this business model,” Wiltsch said.

The AAO pointed to New Mexico’s definition of “teledentistry” — which is defined as “a dentist’s use of health information technology in real time to provide limited diagnostic and treatment planning services in cooperation with another dentist…”

“The business model goes against the laws you already have on the books,” Wiltsch said.

The New Mexico Dental Board discussed the issue at its July meeting. 

“It’s pretty cut and dry that there must be a dentist involved and that dentist must give that level of supervision — so for an alternative model of business or practice is not acceptable,” said Dental Board Vice Chair Leo Paul Balderamos. 

However, the Dental Board did not take any action. 

Earlier this year, the New Mexico Legislature passed a bill that would have expanded the definition of “teledentistry” to allow dental treatment when the patient and the dentist are not in the same physical location. 

However, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed that bill, insisting it “did not ensure adequate oversight for out-of-state dental practitioners.”

It begs the question — under existing state law, are companies like Smile Direct Club considered to be practicing “teledentistry”? 

The 4 Investigates team reached out to Smile Direct Club to ask them about the legality of their business. However, a spokesperson replied in an email that “we are currently in a quiet period and cannot provide comment at this time.”

The company is set to debut on the New York Stock Exchange this month and federal laws prevent them from making any comment that could affect their stock value. Instead, our 4 Investigates team was referred to Marc Bernard Ackerman of the American Teledentistry Association, which includes Smile Direct Club as a member. 

REPORTER: In New Mexico, are they breaking the law? 

ACKERMAN: No. They’re not breaking the law at all… it’s just a company providing services that are non-clinical. 

“The companies providing the digital platform for administrative services are in complete compliance with the laws of New Mexico. A digital scan is nothing more than a three-dimensional topographical photograph of the teeth and gums,” Ackerman said.

Neither the governor nor the attorney general are weighing in on the matter. Instead, they say it’s up to the Dental Board to rule whether Smile Direct Club and companies like them are operating lawfully in New Mexico. 

It’s still unclear when or if the New Mexico Dental Board will act on the AAO’s complaint. 

At least two states — Alabama and Georgia — have taken bold stances against Smile Direct Club, which now both face legal challenges. 

Credits

Nathan O'Neal

Copyright 2019 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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