Dentists fear pain from finance reform bill

Dentists are warning they may become unintended targets of legislation designed to overhaul Wall Street.

Lawmakers and lobbyists have clashed for more than a year over whether a new consumer financial protection office would cover industries and companies that had nothing to do with the financial crisis of 2008. 

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The White House and congressional Democrats argue the new office is aimed solely at companies that offer financial products such as home loans and credit cards. Republicans and industry lobbyists say the legislation is too vague and might affect others. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran a multimillion-dollar ad campaign depicting butchers and others as coming under new financial regulators. “I didn’t cause the financial crisis,” reads one ad depicting an orthodontist in his white coat. “So why will the CFPA [Consumer Financial Protection Agency] punish my practice?”

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) clashed last week over whether dentists would fall under the bill. The White House criticized the concerns as Republicans playing “whack-a-mole” with different parts of the overhaul legislation that they don’t support.

“This isn’t about regulating dentists or grocers,” said Jen Psaki, White House deputy communications director.

But dentists are arguing the debate is not just rhetorical. 

“This would not be a good thing to be included in the CFPA, in our opinion, because it really is intended for financial institutions,” said Michael Graham, managing director of government affairs at the American Dental Association (ADA). 

Late on Monday, 23 healthcare trade associations voiced similar concerns in a letter to Dodd.

Dentists could fall under the Senate financial bill because they often allow patients to pay in installments, Graham said. According to a 2009 ADA survey, roughly half of dentists offer this type of billing for three or four months.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, told Dodd it was “more than likely” that small healthcare practices, including dentists and physicians, would fall under the scope of the new regulator. She noted a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decision that dental and law practices were considered creditors as an example of regulators crafting broad interpretations.

In the Senate Banking Committee’s report on the legislation, lawmakers specifically excluded merchants, retailers and others not “significantly” engaged in offering financial products.

And on the Senate floor last week, Dodd said: “If your orthodontist or doctor or dentist lets you pay your bill over a series of months, they’re not covered.”

But Velázquez and many in the dental industry say those words do not carry the same weight as actual legislation.

“Committee report language does not have the strength of law, and regulatory agencies do not have to follow committee report language,” Graham said. Velázquez said there is a possibility for unintended outcomes unless the legislation is clarified.