A highly-anticipated new dental fee guide for Albertans has been in the works for months, but a Calgary dentist says he's frustrated the process is being done behind closed doors.

"Our regulatory college has not communicated anything of relevance to the members in Alberta and they have not put it on the agenda for discussion or communication to the members at the annual general meeting, which is taking place this weekend in Jasper," says dentist Lawrence Stanleigh.

Alberta Health is working with the Alberta Dental Association and College to create a new fee guide after the provincial government released its review of dental rates across the country, comparing rates for dozens of procedures and concluding Albertans pay as much as 44 per cent more than neighbouring provinces.

It attributed the differences to higher operating costs, in particular, higher wages paid, in Alberta.

Calgary dentist Larry Stanleigh

Calgary dentist Larry Stanleigh, shown here at work, says he is frustrated a new dental fee guideline for Albertans is being discussed without the input of dentists like himself. (Submitted by Larry Stanleigh)

No one from the Alberta Dental Association and College was available to comment on why the fee guide was not part of this year's AGM.

Fee guide dropped

Alberta's dentists stopped publishing a fee guide in 1997, arguing that getting rid of it would stimulate competition and lower prices for patients. But prices have gone up significantly more and at rates faster than any other province, leading to efforts by the NDP government to reinstate a fee guide.

Stanleigh is part of a group of dentists behind a class action lawsuit against the Alberta Dental Association and College. Alberta Liberal party leader David Swann says it's not the fee guide that will push down the cost of a trip to the dentist, but the ability of dentists to freely and openly advertise prices or special deals.

"The college needs to look at that. It's keeping prices high, it's not allowing dentists to legitimately compete with each other and get the prices down to where people can actually afford access to dentists," says Swann.

Debate over advertising rules

Stanleigh says the Alberta Dental Association and College's rules around advertising fees and services are confusing and inconsistent. He says dentists are not allowed to advertise their level of experience or post testimonials online to help Albertans pick and choose their dentist.

Stanleigh likens it to cosmetic medical procedures, which aren't covered by Alberta's healthcare system. He says those physicians and surgeons are allowed to have before and after photos, as well as testimonials.

"If the doctors can do it, why can't the dentists? If it's ethical for physicians, why is it not ethical for dentists?" asks Stanleigh. "In the end the general public suffers." 

'Working with Alberta dentists'

In a statement, Minister of Health Sarah Hoffman said: "We are working with Alberta dentists to produce a fee guide that will be finished later this year. I have also made it clear that I expect the Alberta Dental Association and College to clarify their advertising guidelines with members."

Stanleigh says one thing that would help would be to separate the regulatory college from the professional association — both are currently headed by one individual right now. He believes that's a conflict of interest.

"Then we as a profession could push for more transparency and openness and better communication, but we don't have that voice right now."

But it's the provincial government that decides the structure of the organization.

"I am aware of calls to divide the college and association roles," said Hoffman. "Albertans will judge the effectiveness of the Alberta Dental Association and College's current structure by its ability to respond to the fee problem this year."