Some Liberty County dentists are upset that a new dental clinic is coming to Fort Stewart through the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.
They say AAFES did not notify them or their local civic leaders about it, although AAFES says it did.
Dr. Robert Simmons Jr., with Hinesville Smiles, is a spokesman for a group of dentists upset about how they were notified about the planned clinic.
“An email came from Fort Stewart (AAFES) to my office, to my insurance clerk, asking me did I want to participate in putting in a bid to set up a dental clinic out at Fort Stewart,” Simmons said. “This is about two months ago.”
Simmons and other local dentists say they never received any prior letters or notifications about a possible dental clinic coming to Fort Stewart.
“The whole irony of this thing is, they said they sent me a letter two years ago stating that they wanted to do this,” he said. “I didn’t get anything two years ago. And I don’t know why all of a sudden I’m getting this email.”
Soon after dentists received the email from AAFES, they had a meeting to discuss what was going on. Several dentists and community leaders, including Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas; state Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah; state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway; and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., met with AAFES and Fort Stewart representatives to discuss the clinic.
“The congressman thinks this is a very important issue,” said Brooke Childers, the district representative in Carter’s office. “Anything that affects our local community, small business and the military, obviously, is a priority for us.”
Simmons said AAFES officials claimed that they talked to local civic leaders about the clinic, but many of those he’s personally talked to have said they were never told.
“I’m just baffled that they say civic leaders were informed,” Williams said. “I’m an elected official, a state representative. I never heard anything about it.”
Childers said that Carter has filed a congressional inquiry to find out more about the process behind the clinic.
Dr. Rollin “Tad” Jackson, with Midway Family Dental, said whoever leases the eight-chair clinic coming to Fort Stewart would hurt the local dentists’ bottom line.
“They’ll be able to refer to their own clinics off-post,” he said. “That will undercut the other dentists that are already here and it’ll hurt our bottom line, even if it’s just a little bit of a percent.”
Jackson was upset that local dentists with smaller practices seemed to have been left out of the process.
“It seems like only the big corporate dentists or the big corporate dental practices were notified of this clinic so they could come in and manage it,” he said. “None of the local small-business dentists were notified. And (AAFES) went before Congress to get congressional approval and stated that they had the approval of all the surrounding dentists when — how could they have that? I never knew about it. And many of my local colleagues have no knowledge of it.”
In a statement released last week, Fort Stewart indicated that the post and AAFES “are excited about offering local dental providers the opportunity to open a full-spectrum dental clinic here in early 2016.”
The statement encouraged all local dentists to submit a bid for the proposed clinic. Solicitation for those bids will open by early August.
“We’re looking forward to as many of our neighboring dentists who want to submit a bid doing so and helping provide our soldiers and families another choice for access to dental care locally,” the statement says. “Our goal is to provide all interested providers an opportunity to participate. In fact, a pre-solicitation was sent to area dentists on June 14 with good response. AAFES took all appropriate steps in soliciting for a dental clinic on Fort Stewart, to include congressional notification, a pre-solicitation, and a plan for actual solicitation.”
Christopher Ward, a public-relations specialist with AAFES, wrote in an email that the company opened its first dental office in
1993 and currently has dental offices on Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Irwin, California. Fort Hood is one of the largest military installations in the world, and Fort Irwin is situated in the Mojave Desert, almost an hour from the closet city.
The need for a dental clinic on Fort Stewart was identified two years ago, Ward said.
“There are currently no non-military dental services available on post,” he wrote. “Working with command, a need was identified, and (AAFES) is working to provide a convenient option for those on post.”
Ward added that AAFES notified eight local civic leaders and 22 local dentists about the clinic in a written letter.
A copy of the letter provided to the Coastal Courier with what looks like a stamped date of March 11, 2013, is addressed to Carter, then a state senator. It states that AAFES has the support of Fort Stewart and had received no objections from local dentists. Ward also attached a list of the government and business leaders AAFES said it contacted, and that list includes Williams, Isakson and Liberty County Chamber of Commerce CEO Leah Poole.
Of the 22 dentists on the list, 10 — including Simmons and Jackson — are based in Liberty County. The others are in Richmond Hill, Savannah or Glennville.
In a request for the economic-feasibility report that Simmons says AAFES has made, Ward wrote that AAFES “is a non-appropriated fund instrumentality of the Department of Defense and not a commercial entity. As such, it bringing on-post dental services to Fort Stewart is not a business decision per se, but an attempt to fulfill a need of the military community.”
The dental-clinic contract will be for seven years with three one-year extensions, or a total of 10 years, according to Ward. The clinic will provide general dentistry and any specialty services the military community may need. And outsourcing “would occur at the discretion of the contractor selected to operate the dentist office,” he wrote.
As for how many patients the clinic should expect, “A variety of variables will affect demand,” Ward wrote. “Patronage is expected to vary based on services offered, troop movements and other factors unique to the military environment.”
At a news conference on the steps of the Liberty County Historic Courthouse last week, a few local dentists, as well as Williams, Childers and others, spoke of their concern about the new clinic. Simmons had four requests he wanted to put forth before the media.
He said he didn’t want the military or AAFES to compete with local dentists. He wants Fort Stewart to stop construction on the clinic if it already is in the process of being built.
Simmons also requested a copy of an economic-feasibility study that he said AAFES had claimed to have done but wouldn’t release, and he also wanted a copy of the names of civic leaders that AAFES claims it had contacted about the clinic.
“There’s no compromise,” Simmons said. “I mean, this is a very insidious move by them to tell us, 'Well, it’s not going to affect you guys at all.' No, I don’t think that’s true.”
Childers and Williams both said their offices support the military, but they are concerned about the local small businesses and are trying to learn more about the clinic.
“I’ve listened to the dentists,” Williams said. “They’ve expressed their concerns, and I’m here to show my support. I support small business of any kind. Anything that threatens small business, I take as a threat to the entire district.”