Wednesday, May 03, 2000

Dental board to face charges in hearings

Racism, conflicts of interest alleged

By Michael Hawthorne
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — State lawmakers are convening hearings this week to weigh allegations of racism, conflicts of interest and selective enforcement swirling around a panel that oversees dentists.

Dr. Parneet Sohi
        To most dentists and their patients, the Ohio State Dental Board represents a seal of approval framed on an examining room wall. But a series of problems at the licensing agency has Gov. Bob Taft and lawmakers worried.

        The House Health, Retirement and Aging Committee is wading into the dispute Thursday with the first of weekly hearings on the panel during May. Mr. Taft, meanwhile, is trying to exert more control over the board by replacing one of its members with a former top aide.

        Calls for more oversight of the panel were prompted by a group of dentists led by Dr. Parneet Sohi of Norwood, who compares his experience with the board to a root canal gone bad. He contends the board has singled out Asian-Indian dentists for punishment.

        “These people are out of control,” Dr. Sohi said in a recent interview. “They're destroying lives while ignoring the facts.”

        Dr. Sohi stands to lose his dental license for six months for allegedly abusing a boy in his care.

        When the boy's father showed up at a dental board hearing earlier this year to rebut the charges, the panel refused to let him speak. Dr. Sohi's attorney protested and was arrested on a charge of disrupting a public meeting.

        A recent report by the Ohio Inspector General criticized the dental board for infighting, a lack of formal investigative rules and appearances of impropriety.

        “Evidently the problem is broader than what Dr. Sohi is talking about and the (Ohio) Dental Association is concerned,” said Rep. Dale Van Vyven, a Sharonville Republican who chairs the House committee. “We want to try to sort it out.”

        The seven-member dental board, appointed by the governor, oversees Ohio's 7,500 dentists and 13,000 dental hygienists.

        Lili Kaczmarek, the panel's executive director, tried unsuccessfully to talk Mr. Van Vyven out of holding the hearings. The board is adopting recommendations that should address the inspector general's concerns, she said.

        Most of the dentists who complained to lawmakers have been disciplined by the board, which under Ms. Kaczmarek increased enforcement actions to 78 last year from 27 in 1995.

        “This is the cost of doing business,” she said. “We have become much more active and may take some heat for that. But it's where we want to be.”

        Dentists who clamored for the legislative hearings want the board to adopt rules allowing the accused to question their accusers, similar to proceedings in criminal courts.

        Ms. Kaczmarek dismissed the proposal. She contends it would violate doctor-patient confidentiality and drive up the cost to operate the dental board.

        Critics have seized on the in spector general's report to allege the panel selectively chooses whom to discipline.

        Among other things, the inspector general found an apparent conflict of interest involving the board's secretary, Dr. William J. Lightfoot of Columbus, and an oral surgeon who allegedly injured a patient. The patient lapsed into a coma while having four wisdom teeth removed.

        Dr. Lightfoot, who closed the case after consulting an outside expert, was a friend of the oral surgeon, according to the inspector general's report. The oral surgeon also had a contract with the dental board to serve as an outside expert. Dr. Lightfoot could not be reached for comment.

        Ms. Kaczmarek noted that the inspector general found no wrongdoing by the board. But the panel plans to hire a new enforcement supervisor, adopt new investigation procedures and hire experts to review serious cases.

        That's not enough for Dr. Sohi. He and the father of the child he was accused of abusing still are waiting to officially tell their side of the story.

        A state appeals court ordered the board to reconsider the case because it didn't allow Dr. Sohi to face his accusers or introduce testimony of the child's parents.

        “I think he got a raw deal,” said John Gibson of Blanchester, Ohio, who was prepared to testify that his son wasn't abused.

        Ms. Kaczmarek said the meeting wasn't the proper forum to discuss the case. Dr. Sohi likely will be one of the first witnesses to testify at Thursday's hearing.


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