The state attorney general on Friday filed Medi-Cal fraud charges against the operators of four Southern California dental clinics where officials say hundreds of poor children were taken for treatment at taxpayer expense -- often by unlicensed personnel or without painkillers.
"These scammers not only put the health of innocent people at risk, they also ripped off California taxpayers," said Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.
Eight people involved with clinics in Los Angeles and Riverside counties were charged in the alleged scam that bilked the state's Medi-Cal program out of at least $380,000. The charges included conspiracy, grand theft, money laundering and paying kickbacks to people who rounded up Medi-Cal patients.
The complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that unsuspecting dentists, some fresh out of dental school, were hired and their Medi-Cal provider numbers used to submit claims for services that were not performed or were done by unlicensed staff. If convicted, the defendants face maximum prison terms of six to 16 years.
State and federal officials report that dental fraud in California's health program for the poor has mushroomed in recent years, and two dozen cases are under investigation.
Collin Wong, head of the attorney general's bureau of Medi-Cal fraud and elder abuse, said, "This is one of the most egregious I've seen."
The young patients were brought to the clinics by recruiters who received kickbacks from the clinic operators, Wong said. "They had a written contract with the clinics for the kickbacks: $120 for X-rays and fillings, $60 for a consultation," he said.
Some of the children did not receive medication when they had their teeth filled and cleaned by unlicensed and untrained personnel, Wong said, adding that some of the procedures were unnecessary.
Stolen provider numbers were allegedly used to submit false billings to Medi-Cal and to open bank accounts to launder the phony payments, he said.
The attorney general said the scheme was conducted by Enrique Valer, 47, of Downey; Julio Javier Romo, 45, of Arcadia; and Zubin Plasencia, 35, of West Covina.
Among them they ran Daval Dental Clinic in Huntington Park, Don Bosco Dental Clinic in Moreno Valley and Santa Rosa Dental Office in Norwalk, which later was operated under the name Millenium Dental. All of the clinics are now closed, officials said.
Also charged were Gabriel Humberto Rios, 51, of Arcadia; Monica Maximiliano, 32, of West Covina; Juan Carlos Avila, 32, of Bell; Teresa Mendivil, 48, of Long Beach; and Carmen Revelli, 46, of Lakewood.
Arrest warrants have been issued for Rios and Mendivil, who are believed to have fled to Mexico.
At arraignments Friday afternoon at the Whittier branch courthouse, Maximiliano, Romo, Plasencia, Avila and Revelli pleaded not guilty. All are being held on bond, except Maximiliano, who was released on her own recognizance because she is five months' pregnant.
Valer was not arraigned Friday and remains free. The alleged leader of the fraud ring, Valer has agreed to surrender to authorities Monday and will be arraigned then, said Hallye Jordan of the attorney general's office.