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Dentists' patients tell of terror

Editor's note: This story was first published in The Bee on Sept. 24, 2004.

Laure Manning went to the Hatch Dental Clinic in Modesto for an annual checkup and cleaning earlier this year, but left with a frown instead of a smile.

She said the dentist at the Oakdale Road clinic ground down her front teeth. He also gave her caps for those teeth because he said fillings in them might crack, Manning added.

When he was done, the Modesto woman said, her teeth looked plastic and had black lines. One tooth protruded so much it stuck to her lip whenever she opened her mouth.

"I couldn't smile," she said.

Not to mention, Manning, 47, said, that her teeth hurt and felt loose.

"I didn't have a problem before," she said.

To repair that problem required another Modesto dentist and $8,000, according to Manning.

She said she is relieved that she didn't let the clinic dentists perform a root canal on her 14-year-old son.

"I feel really bad that I let them to do the nine fillings on my son. I should have gotten a second opinion. How do you go from 14 years with no cavities to nine in one year?" Manning said. "Those fillings are falling out now."

Manning is one of dozens of Hatch Dental Clinic patients coming forward with horror stories after Attorney General Bill Lockyer on Wednesday charged 20 dentists and the office manager at the three Hatch clinics with defrauding the Medi-Cal system of $4.5 million. They also are accused of illegally enticing patients into the dentists' chairs in exchange for gifts.

Lockyer's office launched an investigation two years ago after a patient called to report that she got 20 fillings during a cleaning, press secretary Hallye Jordan said

The owner of the clinics, Dr. Kyon Maung Teo, and his 19 dentists, some of whom were based in different parts of the state, are accused of performing unnecessary procedures to make money.

All but one suspect has been arrested and will attend the arraignment scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today in Stanislaus County Superior Court. Seven of the dentists and the office manager, Teo's wife, who is accused of training staff on filling out fraudulent forms, are in custody in the county jail.

Meanwhile, patients are wondering what they can do to help Lockyer build a case and put the alleged shop of horrors out of business.

"I'm only 45 and I feel like an old woman because I have a mouth full of fake teeth," said Irene Arellano of Modesto.

Under the care of Hatch Dental Clinic, she said she had 16 root canals. Arellano said the staff members told her they needed to extract some teeth and cap the rest, but they filed some of her teeth to the extent that they couldn't be capped.

Patients such as Arellano told tales of shoddy work, trips to hospital emergency rooms after being treated at the Hatch clinics and of being so traumatized that they haven't seen a dentist since.

One patient defended the dentists.

Frances Harty, 36 of Modesto said Teo pulled her wisdom tooth and gave her a root canal.

"He had always been gentle and professional," she said, noting that her mouth was properly numbed. "I haven't had a bad experience with them."

She noted that the instruments appeared to be new and fresh out of the package when he worked on her.

Like other patients, Harty and her husband complained that clinic staff aggressively tried to sell more procedures.

The quest for more business sometimes interfered with patients' health, according to Jose Pulido, 53.

The Modestan said the Hatch dental staff insisted that he get X-rays so they could bill Medi-Cal for a "deep cleaning," which he said he never received.

He told the dentist an X-ray could damage a metal instrument in his head. He is supposed to avoid X-rays unless in a life-or-death emergency.

But the dentists wouldn't listen, he said, and were preparing to give him an X-ray anyway, so he walked out.

"I figured I'll just go home and brush my teeth two or three times instead," Pulido said.

Several patients alleged that if insurance wouldn't cover a service, the dentists wouldn't finish the procedure.

Mary Lopez, 25, a Medi-Cal patient from Modesto, said the dentist didn't complete her root canal in 2002 because she was not fully covered.

A temporary filling fell out four days later, three teeth turned black -- one of which also fell out -- and she felt pain every time she ate, she said.

A year later, Lopez said, she returned to the Hatch clinic and Teo gave her another root canal. He also shaved down a bothersome tooth, she added.

"(My cheek) got so swollen I looked deformed," she said, recalling that her cheek was up to her eye by morning.

She said she went to an emergency room, where doctors gave her antibiotics and a shot for the pain.

Mutunga Maithya said he couldn't stand to see his 2-year-old daughter in pain in the clutches of the Hatch clinic in Ceres. A dentist and a nurse tried to hold her down, Maithya said.

"It just didn't look right," he said.

Maithya wanted a routine cleaning, but instead the dentist drilled holes in his teeth, he said, and didn't finish the job because his insurance wouldn't cover it.

"I still have a big hole in my tooth," he said.

He said he wasn't surprised to learn about the charges.

"It was just a matter of time," Maithya said, "before someone blew the whistle."

Patients who believe they have been victimized by the Hatch Dental Clinic dentists are urged to call 800-722-0432.

Bee staff writer Julissa McKinnon contributed to this report.