CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It all started with a little boy and his mom telling the NewsChannel 36 I-Team the story of their horrifying trip to a Medicaid dentist.
It ended Wednesday almost seven years later in a conference room at the Department of Justice in Washington with the announcement of fundamental reforms and a $24 million payback from a group of dental clinics called "Small Smiles."
Brandon Dillbeck was 5 years old in 2003, a blond-headed kid with a mouth filled with stainless steel caps. His mother Christy Dillbeck was beside herself. Dentists at the Medicaid Dental Center -- then located on Freedom Drive in Charlotte -- had strapped Brandon down and drilled and capped 16 of his baby teeth while his mother was locked out in the lobby, pacing frantically.
"My mother about had to hold me back," Dillbeck told the I-Team at the time.
Assistant Attorney General Tony West recalled that report when he announced the resolution of Medicaid fraud allegations, "A child had 16 baby root canals in one sitting," West said. "I cannot imagine having 16 in one sitting."
Seven years ago the I-Team found dozens of children in North Carolina with similar horror stories. The Medicaid Dental Centers had separated them from their mothers or fathers, strapped them down in a device like a straight jacket called a "papoose board" and drilled and capped multiple teeth at once. Some parents told stories of children who wet themselves, screaming and crying, but whose parents could not hear them.
"I was screaming and telling them I couldn't breathe but they didn't believe me," said Tacora Warren in 2005, waiting outside a hearing room to testify before the North Carolina Dental Board, her eyes welling with tears.
Two years ago the Medicaid Dental Centers in North Carolina and its operators, dentists Michael DeRose of Pueblo, Colo., and Tish Ballance of Charlotte, reached a settlement with the Department of Justice, paying taxpayers back $5 million plus $5 million in fines but admitting no criminal wrongdoing.
The same Michael DeRose was a partner in another dental group called FORBA, which operated a multi-state group of clinics under the brand name "Small Smiles." DeRose and his partners sold their interest in "Small Smiles" in 2006.
WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., and investigative reporter Roberta Baskin produced a series of reports on Small Smiles exposing with graphic video how staff in the clinics held down children as they writhed with pain and drilled tooth after tooth, all the while sending the bill to the taxpayers by way of Medicaid. The Department of Justice reports there are 69 Small Smiles offices in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
The NewsChannel 36 I-Team and WJLA-TV revealed how dentists at the Medicaid Dental Centers and Small Smiles were paid bonuses of thousands of dollars based on patient volume, and each clinic competed with other dental offices in the chain for sales goals.
The investigative reports coupled with patient complaints and whistle blower lawsuits prompted the feds to launch "Operation Bite Back." Daniel Levinson, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said, "We will not tolerate Medicaid providers who prey on vulnerable children and seek unjust enrichment at taxpayer expense."
No one was charged with a crime in connection with Operation Bite Back.
Now -- almost seven years after he first told his dental horror story -- there is some justice for Brandon Dillbeck and thousands like him. The Dillbecks have settled a civil lawsuit against the dentists. And the Department of Justice has extracted more than money from the dentists. It has a "Corporate Integrity Agreement" spelling out how the offices will be monitored to ensure children are never harmed there again.