Inglewood woman fights alleged misuse of dental system

The Aesthetica Dental offices.
The Aesthetica Dental offices. Patricia Nazario/KPCC

When dental patients sign off on CareCredit, dentists pay a bank fee and get paid, up front, for whatever amount they bill for. That can easily add up to thousands of dollars. One Inglewood woman says her dentist misused the system to rip her off.

There’s a way for people without a lot of money to pay for health care, from eyeglasses to root canals. It’s called a CareCredit card. In theory, this approach to financing empowers patients to visit doctors when they want to.

Brenda Lemonious went to a dentist, because she wanted her bottom left wisdom tooth removed. She says he gave her a pain pill, a deep cleaning, extracted the tooth and charged $5,500.

“I went there to get a tooth pulled," said Brenda Lemonious.

It happened last summer, after Sacramento cut dental insurance for Medi-Cal patients and while the 56-year-old grandmother was off from work. Lemonious is a school crossing guard for the Inglewood Police Department. She’s held that job nearly 25 years. But she doesn’t work, or get paid, during the months students are not in class.

So after she suffered for a few days, Lemonious says she called a number she’d seen on an Inglewood bus bench. The neon yellow and red sign advertises, "Simple Extractions $49." The office is Aesthetica Dental in Inglewood. Its waiting room resembles a clinic, with a couple dozen people sitting in rows of chairs and moms comforting cranky babies.

The company’s Web site plays this soothing music and offers the promise of easy relief. Bad credit? No problem. Everyone finances. Extended payment plans. No interest. A message scrolls across the top of the screen: “We cater to nervous patients.”

“He told me that all of my teeth were no good," says Lemonious as she describes her first meeting with Dr. Siamak Khakshooy, or Dr. Sammy, as he calls himself. "He told me that my mouth was in really bad shape and I was gonna lose my teeth.”

Lemonious says Dr. Sammy pushed beyond her request to pull one wisdom tooth and tried to sell her a deep cleaning, and an upper and lower partial. She had $50 cash on hand to pay for the extraction, but Lemonious says Dr. Sammy urged her to spend more.

“Well, payment plan this one, payment plan, well, can you afford this?" says Lemonious. "And Dr. Sammy is right there! Can you afford $128 a month? I can’t afford... well, how much can you afford? Maybe $20 to $30. No, no, no. We can’t do that.”

What Dr. Sammy did do for Brenda Lemonious was open a CareCredit account for $12,600. Lemonious says it happened after he gave her a pain pill and she didn’t know what she was signing. She’d been trying to refinance her house, so she says she hadn’t planned to apply for a credit card.

“Doing a refinance with the bank and with the bank and the economy like it is, why would I pull a $12,000 credit line?” said Lemonious.

[Update on Dec. 14]
Dr. Sammy declined to discuss Lemonious' case, on the grounds that doing so would violate federal patient privacy rules. He also declined to discuss his business practices in general. In an interview after we broadcast the story, he asserted that it contains "false information," but said he could not be more specific, again citing the federal privacy rules.

“See in dental school, they would never do such a thing," said another dentist in Los Angeles County. He agreed to put down his high-speed tools and explain how his industry operates. This dentist says dental training focuses on keeping mouths healthy. But, in the real world...

“It’s a business," said the dentist. "Bottom line is to make money.”

This dentist says most dentists offer their patients various payment options. When patients choose CareCredit, dentists pay a bank fee. They also get paid, up front, for the amount they bill for. That can easily add up to thousands of dollars.

A video on CareCredit’s Web site highlights its benefits to consumers. “You never have to put off the treatments you want or need.” This form of health care financing has been around for 22 years.

GE Money, an arm of General Electric, acquired the enterprise eight years ago. A company spokeswoman says growth is steady – and dentistry brings in a good portion of the business.

California Assemblyman Dave Jones, chair of the Assembly Health Committee, wrote a bill that targets unethical dentists. It’ll become state law on New Year’s Day.

“We actually had examples of people who were under anesthesia and be offered these credit arrangements to sign," says Jones, laughing. "The bill requires that people be given a specific written notice and treatment plan. In addition, they have to be provided a written notice in their primary language.”

The new law will also prohibit dentists and their employees from arranging credit for patients while they’re under anesthesia or pain medication. Brenda Lemonious says that’s what Dr. Sammy did. She says that after he opened that $12,600 credit line in her name, he charged her $5,500 for a deep cleaning and extraction. Lemonious closed the account; she says here’s how she haggled with Dr. Sammy for a lower price.

“I’ll give you $500, OK, I’ll give $600, I’ll give you $750," says Lemonious, "OK, $1,000. He says OK."

Lemonious says she pulled out another credit card to charge it. She still regrets that.

“It’s not right, punk!" she said, crying. "You know, I didn’t have a thousand dollars for no tooth!”

About 36,000 dentists practice in California. The state dentistry board licenses them and binds them to uniform regulations, standards of practice and ethics. The board also employs a team of investigators who try to weed out the bad apples. But dissatisfied patients have to initiate those investigations. Details on how to begin are on the California dental board’s Web site.

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