Medicaid dental dollars return to state... and to lobbyists

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on April 16, 2013 at 10:10 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 2 at 5:12 PM

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After a News 8 investigation into questionable spending on Medicaid payments, the state has been recovering some of the hundreds of millions it spent for orthodontics under Medicaid.

At the same time, some dentists are betting on lobbyists to thwart regulation.

The Smiley Dental Clinic at Medallion Center in Dallas has agreed to repay the State of Texas more than $4 million. It's one of dozens of Smiley Clinics in Texas which billed the state millions for Medicaid orthodontics from 2008 through 2010.

In 2011, News 8 reported on the mega-mansion in Frisco — complete with water slide and swimming pool — belonging to Smiley's owners. In agreeing to repay the state $4,015,000, Smiley admitted no wrongdoing.

In all, the State of Texas has collected more than $8 million from four dentists by actions of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services. Two more settlements are pending.

But while clinics like Smiely are paying money back, other dentists are spending money on lobbyists, on the bet they can prevent further regulation.

"In this whole session, I have not seen as many lobbyists hired to kill one bill as I've seen to kill that bill," state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) told News 8. "That tells me there are a lot of people making a whole lot of money."

With Senate Bill 8, Nelson wants to beef up the Office of Inspector General, which is trying to make overcharging dentists pay up.

OIG has increased its investigative staff over the last three years, and turned its attitude on Medicaid fraud from passive to aggressive.

But dentists are hiring big name lobbyists in an effort to maintain the status quo.

Haley Barbour, one of the most prominent lobbyists in Washington and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has appeared in Austin for Medicaid dental clients.

Haley Cornyn, lobbyist daughter of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is also knocking on doors in Austin for a national dental chain.

"We have, on the dental issue, some very high profile lobbyists coming in," State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) told News 8. "And we're happy to talk to them."

According to records obtained by News 8 from the Texas Ethics Commission, there are at least 22 lobbyists representing 15 national dental firms registered for this session of the legislature in Austin.

One House bill aims to temper the influence of corporate dental chains. Two House bills would restrict how the OIG polices Medicaid fraud.

"Right now, I'm doing my best to keep people from taking away [the OIG's] authority," Sen. Nelson said. "I'd love to have an even bigger hammer, if you will. But I'm not optimistic that that's going to happen."

On Monday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 8, which seeks to strenghten the OIG and control Medicaid fraud. The bill now moves to the House.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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