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Reporting at the nexus of health care and crime Date: 09/29/15


Tonya Alanez

By Mary Otto

Reporter Tonya Alanez covers the crime beat for the Sun Sentinel, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Just the same, there are times when her beat leads her to health care stories. Last month, she filed a story (site registration required) that offered a troubling look at dentistry in South Florida. She reported on a state investigation into two dentists suspected of fraudulently billing Medicaid for dentures and extractions that frail and elderly patients may not have needed – or even received.

It wasn’t her first assignment at the intersection of dentistry and crime. A couple of summers ago, she took a look at the problem of unlicensed dentists and their unlucky victims.

Alanez wrote:

Unemployed, lacking dental insurance and fighting cancer, a Hallandale Beach woman turned to an unlicensed dentist who performed oral surgery in her trailer home and accepted cash payments in installments…

As a result, Mirta Pavon suffered a severe infection and loss of a molar. She had to undergo additional surgery to correct the problems caused by the house-call dentist…

My experience is terrible,” said Pavon, 60. “I didn’t have dental insurance and I had to fix my teeth.

In this Q&A, Alanez tells us more about her work reporting on crime and health care. She also shares a little wisdom for health care reporters who may want to do more writing with an eye toward crime.

How often does your crime reporting lead you to dental or medical stories?
Plenty. Especially in South Florida. We get our share of botched plastic surgery cases, ranging from penis enlargements gone wrong to fatal butt enhancements. Just google “toxic tush.” We also see a fair share of unlicensed doctors and dentists, whose patients often tend to be poor or undocumented immigrants, or both. I’ve also written about a psychologist who got romantically involved with a patient – She had a vendetta going strong and contacted me. Google “Dr. Michael Walczak” and “Pam Gustin” for that one. I’m sure there are more, those are off the top of my head.

In your story, “Arrests Shed Light on Practice of Unlicensed Dentistry in South Florida,” you write that the state Department of Health was in the process of developing a media campaign to warn consumers about the dangers of seeking treatment from unlicensed health care professionals. Can you tell us a little more about the extent of the unlicensed dentistry problem in your area and how officials are trying to address it?
I haven’t followed up on the Department of Health’s media campaign, so I don’t know where it stands or how successful it has been. Can’t really measure the extent of the unlicensed dentistry problem or how officials are addressing it.

You wrote that two recent arrests of people charged with practicing unlicensed dentistry brought renewed attention to the problem. Had you written about unlicensed dentists before? If so, have there been common threads to the cases you have covered?
Some of my colleagues had written about unlicensed dentists before, that’s what gave me the idea to write a follow-up story based on a patient’s experience. The common thread with unlicensed dentists is that many of their patients are poor, undocumented immigrants, and because of that I imagine many cases go unreported.

How did you find out about these cases and who have been the most helpful sources you have found in following them?
The Davie Police Department had put out a press release about the arrest of an unlicensed dentist who had been charged before. I pulled the court file for the first case to piece it together and figure out who his patients were and what their complaints were. As for the Sunrise dentists accused of Medicaid fraud, I came across a search warrant that laid out the parties, the allegations, the victims, etc.

As a crime reporter, do you have a few words of wisdom to share with health care reporters who might not always look for stories the same way you do?
Words of wisdom to health care reporters: If you have colleagues who are crime reporters, turn to them, let them know you are interested in health care-related crime stories. Also, figure out which prosecutors in your area handle such cases, develop a rapport and see if they’ll give you a holler when they’ve got a good one.