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Black dentists from across Tennessee told a group of lawmakers Tuesday that they had been treated unfairly by the company that administers the state's contract to provide dental services to the poor.

Several dentists said they and their colleagues had been purged from the list of providers approved to treat patients through TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, shortly after a new contract was awarded last year to DentaQuest, a Boston-based provider.

They and representatives for the National Dental Association, a trade group for black dentists, said dentists never were offered an explanation for why they were removed or an opportunity to appeal the decisions. But some said the purge had destroyed their practices and risked the health of the often poor TennCare patients they see.

"We have a company who's administering a program who's focusing on decreasing their bottom-line (costs), so they can increase their personal wealth," said Denise Mustiful-Martin, a periodontist from Memphis.

Leaders of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators organized the two-hour hearing at Legislative Plaza, saying dentists have complained about DentaQuest's contract for months but received no response from the company or TennCare.

Several participants alleged DentaQuest weeded out dentists who saw high numbers of TennCare patients to discourage them from getting treatment. They noted that DentaQuest would receive a bonus of up to $8 million from the state if they could reduce costs while providing treatment to at least 50.6 percent of TennCare enrollees.

Kristi Gooden, a spokeswoman for DentaQuest, said the company's process for assembling its network is confidential, but that ethnicity was not a factor. She also said the company had met the state's geographic requirements for the network and that care rates had increased after the reconfiguration.

Sarah Tanksley, a TennCare spokeswoman, said agency officials had not seen any evidence of racial discrimination by DentaQuest.

"We prohibit our contractors from any racial discrimination which is a violation of federal law," she said. "In fact we require DentaQuest to be an active partner with TennCare in our commitment to diversity."

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