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Tooth Decay

New Children's Dental Clinic forced to close.

By Janel Davis

U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr., state Representative Kathryn Bowers, Memphis City Schools board member Hubon Sandridge, and a host of ministers have all pledged support, but that may not be enough to keep a local dental clinic from closing its doors Friday.

The Children's Dental Clinic, 4691 Knight Arnold, will have to cease operations just one month after its March 3rd opening because TennCare administrators have decided to suspend issuing credentials to urban-area dentists serving TennCare patients. In its four-week tenure, the clinic saw more than 900 patients, most of them on TennCare.

A second children's clinic, located at Cleveland and Poplar and scheduled to open next week, will also not open unless advocates can persuade TennCare to make an exception.

Doral Dental in Wisconsin, TennCare's dental administrator, took over the dental component in October 2002. The company made the suspension decision in March with TennCare facing dental budget constraints. According to Doral spokesman Michael Pflughoeft, the Children's Dental Clinic, as well as other dentists and clinics, had received certification application information before the decision was made. When a survey determined that the 82 Memphis-certified dentists could adequately satisfy the city's TennCare patients, the remaining applicants were not accepted into the provider network.

But Dr. Bill Mueller, owner of the Children's Dental Clinic, said he brokered a verbal agreement and approval from Doral for joining the TennCare provider network. Mueller and the management company Forba LLC have spent $1 million to build and train employees for each location.

"We don't do or give verbal agreements," said Pflughoeft. "[Forba] did receive contract forms for the credentialing process, but [the forms] specifically say that no patients are to be seen until a written contract is complete. They had no authorization from Doral or TennCare to see patients."

Because the clinic is not part of the TennCare provider network, Mueller has bankrolled its operations and employee payroll expenses of $120,000 for its first month.

Eleven other dentists are TennCare-certified within the same area as the Knight Arnold clinic. But parents of Children's Dental Clinic patients said appointments are difficult to get at the existing dental offices and are usually referred to the clinic anyway. "My child is mildly retarded, and when I told other dentists about him they wouldn't see him," said Carissi Luellen, mother of a 10-year-old. "But here, we have had a good experience and no problems."

Dr. Freida Grimes-Moore, lead dentist in the clinic, said their office sees 50-60 children each day, and accepts referrals, walk-ins, and emergencies. "If this clinic closes I will be personally devastated," she said. "Unemployment is not the issue; it's the children. I begged [state legislators] to keep the clinic open, but I don't think they really understood."

The 52 employees of the Knight Arnold location will be terminated, along with an additional 25 preselected employees of the Cleveland location.

"It's an unfortunate situation that [Forba] opened the clinic before having their credentials," said Pflughoeft. Once TennCare begins its new fiscal year in July, the Children's Dental Clinic as well as other waiting provider applicants may be admitted to the network if there are adequate budget allocations, he said.

TennCare uses $94 million of its total budget for dental services. Its three-year contract with Doral is for $18 million.

Forba, the management company of the Children's Dental Clinic of Memphis, manages 14 similar clinics in six states. They are terminating plans to open other clinics in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.

Delicate Cargo

Zoo officials make plans to ensure safe trip for pandas.

By Bianca Phillips

As plans are made to ship Ya Ya and Le Le, the giant pandas that are slated to become the focal points of a Memphis Zoo exhibit, local animal caretakers are working to ensure the animals receive sufficient care on the 15-hour flight from Beijing to Memphis. The pandas are scheduled to arrive in Memphis on April 7th.

The PandaExpress, a FedEx MD-11 jet, has been converted into a panda shipping machine, complete with two large crates to hold the pandas and seats near the tail section for four members of the Memphis Zoo staff, two Chinese specialists, a few FedEx staff members, a loadmaster, a mechanic, and a camera crew of three.

"The crates are pretty large, and we'll actually put some bamboo in there with them. We'll have 10 gallons of water on the plane so they'll have plenty of fresh water," said John Ouellette, a Memphis Zoo panda research coordinator.

According to Ouellette, the pandas eat about 50-55 pounds of bamboo per day. They'll also be fed apples, sweet potatoes, and a processed food product called a Marion Leaf Eater Biscuit while they're aboard the plane.

Ya Ya, the female panda, is currently housed in Beijing, while Le Le, the male, is in Shanghai. Since their flight to Memphis will be their first meeting, they will be kept in separate crates and will remain apart at the zoo until they've had time to become comfortable with one another.

"Pandas in the wild are primarily solitary. The only time the mature animals come together is during the breeding season. Placing the animals together in captivity is kind of unusual," said Ouellette.

The animals will not be given any tranquilizers during their flight. According to Ouellette, the animals are naturally calm, and FedEx crews have never had trouble transporting pandas in the past. However, the veterinarians on board will have an emergency kit handy just in case.

"She's a juvenile and a little rambunctious. He's a little older and close to sexual maturity, so he's a little more mellow," said Ouellette. "Temperament-wise, I don't think we're going to have to do anything special. We just need to be aware and watch them."

Don't Bet on It

A casino in The Pyramid?

By Mary Cashiola

The Memphis Pyramid Casino and Resort? It might happen.

Shelby County commissioner John Willingham presented a joint resolution to the city council's economic development and tourism committee Tuesday to begin the first steps in turning The Pyramid from what the barbecue restaurant owner called a "sow's ear" to a "silk purse."

"We need to get a leg up on this conversion if there's going to be a conversion," said Willingham. "Sometime, about 12 months from now, we'll look forward to a dark facility."

Though the county commission voted down a proposal to hire Lakes Entertainment, Inc., to study the casino idea, Willingham said it would be reconsidering the vote at its April 7th meeting.

"This petition has no merit if the Tigers decide to stay in The Pyramid. If they choose to go to the [FedExForum], we need to have our oars in the water," said Willingham. If the Tigers do stay, The Pyramid will be in use at least 22 days of the year. However, with the first right of refusal for touring acts resting with the new arena, it's unclear how many more days it will be used.

"Chances are, and I don't like to say this, as it stands, [Pyramid general manager Alan] Freeman and his people will have to start looking for jobs at the first of the year," said Willingham.

Willingham sees the casino with a parking garage inside the lower level of The Pyramid, a main gaming floor, a floor for casino security, and then several levels of hotel rooms. He also suggested another hotel could be erected in the space that is now the Pyramid's main parking lot.

"There are 11 different ways we could go," Willingham said. "It might be great to have Indians involved. It might not be great. And if so, which tribe?"

City council reaction was mixed. Councilman Tom Marshall called it a "viable option" and "one we should consider." Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Holt worried about what would happen to the annual COGIC convention should the casino idea be pursued and called The Pyramid's obsolescence "unthinkable."

"You put that kind of money into a facility and then 11 years later it's considered obsolete. Is the same thing going to happen to the arena?" she asked.

The city council did not take any action, but the committee seemed willing to study the idea. Said Councilman Jack Sammons: "It would be a real shame to wait until the new building is built and the Tigers move and then say, 'Oh, shucks, what do we do now?'"

Home Sweet Home

Gay and lesbian center acquires its own building.

By Bianca Phillips

With a name like the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC), one would assume that the organization has a center, but for the past five years, the center has been without its own building. That is, until this past February, when the organization acquired a building at 892 S. Cooper, former home of the Cooper-Young Business Association.

The MGLCC has provided support groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults and youth since 1989, but until now it has rented storefront space in various locations, most recently on Madison Avenue in Midtown.

"Right now, there are over 20 gay and lesbian support groups in the Memphis area, who have until now been searching for a place to conduct their affairs," said Len Piechowski, MGLCC president. "We have been asked to leave certain locations in the past because some people just don't like gay people. But now we're in charge here."

According to Piechowski, several support groups, fund-raising groups, and the gay softball league are already using the building on Cooper and several others are considering it. Beginning Tuesday, it will be open Thursday through Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. MGLCC is currently in a 15-year lease agreement with one of its benefactors, Herb Zemen. Since the organization has no credit rating, it was not able to apply for a mortgage loan, but Zemen took it upon himself to apply for a personal mortgage loan. MGLCC had raised $72,000 in fund-raising efforts, but that wasn't enough to purchase the building.

Piechowski says the organization is developing a three-year strategic plan, which will include creating Lavender University, a continuing education program, as well as a gay and lesbian parent support group and teen support groups to curb alcohol and drug abuse and suicide.

"There's so many things here in Memphis that give messages to gay people that we are not healthy or good just the way we are," said Piechowski. "What we want to do is send healthy messages that will help our kids grow up with a positive self-concept rather than allowing that sense of shame and guilt to take a stronghold."

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