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2005 duPont Award Winners: ‘Medicaid Dental Centers Investigation’

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When photographer Doug Stacker at NBC station WCNC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., went to lunch at a nearby diner one June day in 2003, the waitress told him about the treatment her grandson received at the local Medicaid Dental Center, where the 4-year-old had 16 stainless steel caps put on his teeth all at once.

The Belo-owned station’s investigative reporter Stuart Watson and producer Rick Yarborough subsequently uncovered and reported details that Medicaid Dental Centers in North Carolina and in Colorado made a practice of doing as much dental work in one sitting as possible on children-much of it unnecessary-to maximize profits. That meant strapping children down for three to four hours at a time, drilling most of their teeth and not allowing them to see their parents during that time, while they cried and screamed and were not allowed to use the bathroom in some cases. One child cried so much that he popped blood vessels in his face.

“You see these little angelic kids with mouths full of metal,” Mr. Watson said.

Mr. Watson heard from former employees who told him that everyone at the clinics, from the receptionists to the hygienists to the dentists themselves, received a monthly bonus based on the volume of work done.

The center sued WCNC for libel, but the station continued to report and the suit has since been dropped. In addition to the centers in North Carolina and Colorado, privately owned Medicaid Dental Centers operates clinics in six other states, treating about 250,000 children a year.

Mr. Watson is still following the story. Though the series won the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award, the George Foster Peabody Award and the Scripps-Howard Award, Mr. Watson said he is frustrated that little change has been made.

Colorado Medicaid officials revised policy to refuse payment for more than five stainless steel caps at one time, and North Carolina Medicaid officials changed policy to refuse payment for more than six stainless steel caps and six baby root canals at one time.

The North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners interviewed some parents who complained about the care their children received at the Medicaid Dental Centers, but nearly two years after the first WCNC report, it had taken no official action, Mr. Watson said.