This isn’t some kind of strange zombie tale. Indeed, the status of whether someone is living or dead, usually, is pretty easy to determine in the real world.
But that’s not what happened when the state Board of Dentistry, which falls under the Division of Consumer Affairs, considered the complaint of a woman who said she received substandard care from her dentist.
Diane Hertzig waited for nearly three years for her complaint to be resolved. It seemed to come to a close when she was told by the board that the dentist was dead.
But he wasn’t dead at all.
This one is a whopper.
Diane Hertzig saw the dentist — we’ll call him Dr. X — for regular cleanings for more than 25 years. (We’ve decided not to name the dentist because he is no longer practicing and he was not the subject of disciplinary action.)
Starting in 2011, Hertzig said, she noticed Dr. X, who was getting older, seemed to lose some dexterity in his right hand.
In October 2012, Hertzig visited Dr. X’s Montville practice to get a crown.
But afterward, she had ongoing inflammation and bleeding.
By April 2013 that Hertzig sought emergency treatment from a new dentist.
“My new dentist found a huge hole in my tooth along with crowns that were not fitted properly, causing inflammation and bleeding,” Hertzig said. “At this initial consultation he could visually see gross decay present.”
The new dentist said decay of that magnitude shouldn’t exist for someone who had regular cleanings.
Hertzig showed the new dentist a copy 2011 X-rays from Dr. X. The X-rays showed the decay was there then, Hertzig said the new dentist told her, and the problems should have been fixed.
Hertzig approached Dr. X about the findings.
She said she met with him face-to-face on May 29, 2013, asking for restitution of $2,500 to cover the repair work that was done by the new dentist.
Dr. X agreed, Hertzig said, but he never paid her the money.
In July 2013, Hertzig filed a complaint with the Board of Dentistry for the $2,500.
She received confirmation that the state received the complaint, and she was given a case number.
“I faithfully followed up every month on the status,” Hertzig said. “‘Pending’ was pretty much the answer.”
And “pending” was still the answer more than a year later.
Hertzig added an addendum to her claim in February 2015 for an additional $2,589 — the cost to repair additional problem areas.
More months passed.
Tired of waiting, Hertzig asked her senator, Anthony Bucco, to intervene.
Then she received a letter from the board on April 13, 2016.
It wasn’t good.
The letter, signed by Jonathan Eisenmenger, the board’s executive director, said the investigation into her claim was started in July 2013, and that it “often takes a good deal of time to conduct a thorough investigation.” Eisenmenger said the board attempted to get copies of her records from multiple dentists.
“This effort was complicated by the fact that Dr. X’s practice had been closed, and that Dr. X subsequently died following a period of illness,” Eisenmenger wrote (using the dentist’s real name). “Efforts were undertaken to obtain restitution from the dentist’s estate, but this was ultimately unsuccessful.”
The file was administratively closed.
“I was very sad to get the letter and felt horrible that whatever the dentist was suffering from while I was in his care is basically what he passed from,” Hertzig said. “I guess at this point most people would move on with their life. But not me.”
Hertzig said she tried to find information on the dentist’s death, but she came up empty.
So she filed several Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests with Consumer Affairs in April, and the requests were ultimately denied.
But she received a call from Eisenmenger on May 10.
Eisenmenger said the dentist was actually still living.
“The dentist did not die! A resurrection, I suppose,” Hertzig said. “I don’t get how a mistake like that could be made.”
Eisenmenger sent a follow-up letter on May 16, saying he re-opened the case and it would be presented to the board on May 18.
“You also requested an explanation concerning how the Board arrived at its understanding that Dr. X had died when he is, in fact, still alive,” Eisenmenger wrote. “The Board misunderstood information provided to it by Dr. X’s attorney.”
Hertzig sent a complaint letter to the governor’s office, and she also contacted Bamboozled.
LOOKING FOR RESTITUTION
Hertzig asked Bamboozled to wait before contacting the board because she didn’t want to jeopardize her case, so we waited.
After a few weeks, Hertzig received a response to her letter to the governor.
It came from Eisenmenger.
He apologized for the error about the dentist’s living status, saying the Board “misread correspondence from Dr. X’s attorney, who referred to the dentist’s estate as not having sufficient assets to cover the debts of the dentist’s practice.”
Eisenmenger said he has put steps into place to ensure such errors will not be repeated.
He explained that the dentist’s illness prevented him from answering the board’s requests. The dentist also did not renew his license to practice in October 2015, Eisenmenger said.
He said the board once again reached out to Dr. X’s attorney to see if there were funds available for restitution, noting the board can’t seek money other than what Hertzig paid the dentist.
Her other expenses, even if they were because of Dr. X’s treatment or lack thereof, were not subject to recovery.
Nearing the three-year anniversary of her first complaint, Hertzig was done. She asked Bamboozled to intervene.
“How much longer will it take for a resolution this time?” she asked.
We asked Consumer Affairs about the status of the case, why it wasn’t resolved after three years and how it believed the dentist was dead.
Within days, Hertzig got an answer on the financial part.
The board secured a $575 payment for her.
“Wow, how quickly a decision has been made since you called,” Hertzig said. “He charged $1,195 and insurance paid half. So I guess the half that I paid is what I’m getting back,” she said, still bothered that she can’t be reimbursed for the additional costs.
“Since the state has taken their sweet time in reviewing my case, it is past the two year statute of limitation, so I have no recourse at this point,” she said.
Consumer Affairs said it’s unable to comment on cases that are under investigation or on those that have been closed without disciplinary action. There was no disciplinary action in this case.
So it couldn’t tell us more about how the board thought the dentist was dead or whether the board tried to verify the supposed death.
The Board did share some recent statistics.
Since July 1, 2013, it has received 1,390 complaints and closed 1,465 investigative files. Since 2013, the board obtained $387,695 in restitution for patients.
Given that Hertzig’s case took nearly three years before she was told the dentist was dead, we wondered how long complaints take, on average, to resolve.
“Every investigation is fact sensitive and some investigations take longer than others to resolve,” Consumer Affairs said.
When asked about speed with which complaints that were filed in 2013 were resolved, it said some were resolved in days or weeks, while others are ongoing.
“While the Board strives to resolve every complaint as quickly as possible, licensees are entitled to due process that affords them time to respond to, and refute, the allegations against them,” the agency said. “Investigations – even those that do not result in disciplinary action – often involve multiple Board hearings, witness interviews, the exchange of documents, and attorney negotiations.”
Understood, but still.
Three years is a very, very long time.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.