Call Kurtis Investigates: Drilling for Dollars
You give them your trust, but some dentists could be taking advantage performing work you don’t even need to make money.
Joan Mitchell Love and her husband Ralph Love said Sacramento Dentist David Milton Lewis changed their smiles forever.
“I can’t smile,” Ralph said as he pulled back his lip to reveal teeth he’s missing.
“I know he took us,” Joan said.
They always suspected they didn’t need all of the expensive work Dr. Lewis performed.
“They were all things to get you back in his office to glean more money,” she said.
Now they suspect their suspicions were right.
STATE GOES AFTER DR. LEWIS
In a rare aggressive move, the state shut down Doctor Lewis’ practice in February, accusing him of harming patients. (Dr Lewis Press Release) An administrative law judge ruled that permitting Dr. Lewis to continue practicing dentistry would endanger the public health, safety or welfare. (Read the Interim Suspension Order and the ISO Petition)
“This is one of the most egregious cases I have ever seen,” said the Dental Board of California’s Chief Enforcement Officer Kim Trefry.
She said her investigators uncovered Dr. Lewis billed for work he never performed, sometimes on teeth patients didn’t even have. According to a memo CBS13 (Read the Memo) obtained supporting the petition to suspend his license, the state claims Lewis performed unnecessary and excessive treatment on patients’ healthy and natural teeth.
“He was performing root canals on people that did not need root canals,” said Dental Board Executive Officer Richard DeCuir.
DeCuir said the red flags went up when Dr. Lewis’ bill to one insurance company jumped from an average of $154,000 a year in 2006 to $870,000 a year after 2009. That one insurer paid out claims to Dr. Lewis of more than $2.7 million since 2006.
Investigators claim Lewis found a cash cow in UPS workers to whom they say he offered cash rewards to refer colleagues.
“It’s our understanding that their insurance program for dental had no co pay,” Trefry said. “100-percent coverage, no cap.”
“He could make a lot of money off those people,” Kurtis asked.
“Yes, he could,” she said.
Trefry said the Dental Board has identified 120 patients.
Several dentists from across the country have told CBS13 this is a broader issue within the industry.
“I don’t think it’s good for my profession,” said Sunnyvale dentist Dr. Mark Burhenne who operates AskTheDentist.com.
While he believes most dentists are ethical, he said in this economy where people are skipping appointments and going without needed treatment, some dentists are surviving by hard selling unsuspecting patients on more expensive treatments they may not need.
“I don’t like it. I’m embarrassed to even talk about it.”
As an experiment, CBS13 sent an undercover staffer to three different dentists for an x-ray and exam to see what they would tell us. While all three dentists agreed our staffer needed a root canal on one tooth and had a cavity on another, it varied from there.
The first dentist claimed she had cavities on two additional teeth. The second agreed on one of the cavities, but then said she had two additional cavities. Dentist #3 claimed she needed pricey crowns on two front teeth that cost $4,140.
So how do you explain the difference?
DIFFERENT DENTISTS TREAT DIFFERENTLY
Dr. Mark Kirkland who teaches ethics at UCSF’s School of Dentistry says each dentist doesn’t practice the same. He says different schools teach different philosophies about treating patients.
“The problem is when we get to be overly aggressive and selling unnecessary treatment,” he said.
“I always tell patients gut feeling, gut feeling is important,” said Dr. Burhenne.
Both say dentists should give patients all of their options, not only push them toward elaborate pricey procedures.
“If you get any sense it’s this and there are no alternatives, that’s a red flag,” Dr. Burhenne said. “There are always alternatives.”
WHAT IS THE DENTAL BOARD DOING ABOUT IT?
Dental Board Executive Officer Richard DeCuir admits patients may have no idea they have been victimized. He says patients rarely complain, which makes it hard to go after dentists. He says the issue is on the board’s radar, but he doesn’t suspect it’s widespread.
Under the California Public Records Act, we’ve learned of 419 complaints of unnecessary treatment or excessive prescribing between 2007 and 2011. The Dental Board filed zero complaints against dentists for this practice in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, although we’re told some cases may still be in the investigative process.
DR. LEWIS’ FUTURE
In the complaint against Dr. Lewis, the Attorney General’s office wrote, “it’s the worst kind of evil a dentist can engage in.” Calling it her career case, the Dental Board’s Chief Investigator Kim Trefry says she wants Lewis to lose his license permanently.
“I don’t think he should ever be treating patients again,” she said.
The Dental Board says they may go after Dr. Lewis criminally. He failed to return several calls from CBS13 requesting comment. A clerk at his Marconi Avenue office told CBS13 this week he has sold his practice.
After their experience, Joan and Ralph learned to trust their instincts and say they no longer trust any dentist.
WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT FROM YOUR DENTIST?
The California Dental Association sent CBS13 this statement:
“The California Dental Association believes a good doctor-patient relationship is essential to optimizing dental treatment and we encourage patients to:
- Ask questions until the dentist has answered them satisfactorily
- Expect treatment plans to be explained clearly and understandably, including costs
- Get a second opinion – some plans require second opinions to be offered, while others allow for a second opinion to count as an examination
- Find a dentist they are comfortable with
- Communicate expectations, goals and wishes – are perfectly straight, white teeth most important? Does it matter between silver-colored or tooth-colored fillings? Is a removable bridge preferred over a dental implant?
When a dentist understands a patient’s end goal, they can decide together how to move forward, an approach that is likely to result in dental treatment cost estimates that are more similar than different.
Consumers looking for a dentist can contact their local dental society for referrals.”