By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A federal whistleblower’s complaint, withdrawn recently after the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to intervene in the case, nonetheless contains disturbing allegations of massive fraud by Nova Southeastern University and its College of Dental Medicine.
The alleged fraud involves the reputed credentials of a “large portion” of the college’s clinical faculty. According to the complaint, they either were not actual, state-licensed dentists or they lacked a required teaching permit from the Florida Department of Health issued to full-time dental instructors who only practice dentistry at a school’s teaching facilities.
NSU was accused of knowingly defrauding the government out of millions of dollars disbursed under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.
“Despite knowing the instructors were unlicensed and ineligible to teach such clinical courses involving the practice of dentistry on patients, defendant falsely certified to the government that it was in compliance with applicable statutes and regulations in order to receive financial aid funds,” the complaint says.
The alleged victims were not just the government, but unsuspecting dental students and patients from the community who were treated for fillings, crowns, extractions, implants and other procedures at a half-dozen college dental clinics in Broward and Miami-Dade.
The complaint, whose allegations remain unresolved, was filed by Nova dental school graduate Michael Zhang in August 2020. According to Zhang, a “comprehensive review” of the university’s dental program from 2016 to 2018 found that “more than 20 clinical instructors who were assigned to supervise [Zhang] and hundreds of other dental students enrolled in clinical courses were not eligible to teach such courses.”
Prosecutors won’t discuss NSU dental program
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Weinkle declined to comment. U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Marlene Rodriguez said, “We do not disclose our rationale on intervention decisions.”
NSU spokesman Joe Donzelli declined to comment. “NSU does not comment on any pending, current or past litigation,” he said.
The NSU dental college’s website says, “In its short 20-year history, the NSU College of Dental Medicine (CDM) has developed an outstanding reputation for educating leaders in dentistry.
Our dentists are leaders in their field and collectively offer extensive knowledge in every aspect of oral health care.
“The Dental Medicine Patient Care Centers offer patients both comprehensive and specialty care within a university setting. Services are available to adults, children, adolescents, and elderly clients. All dental treatment will meet or exceed technical and ethical standards of care, that have been established by the dental profession.”
Zhang voluntarily dismissed his whistleblower case in January following the government’s decision not to intervene.
Little state interest in accusations
His attorney, Cristina Pierson with the Fort Lauderdale law firm Kelley Uustal, said it was difficult for Zhang to proceed without the federal government’s backing. She also said it was her “impression” that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had hit a barrier in its inquiry “because there certainly was not a lot of interest on the State of Florida’s part in addressing this. If you don’t have the state’s imprimatur, that makes it difficult to go forward.”
The Florida Department of Health, which through its Board of Dentistry licenses and regulates the state’s dentists, did not respond to requests for comment. While Pierson said the Florida Attorney General’s office was also alerted to the accusations, a spokeswoman said the office could locate no correspondence.
Zhang’s accusations about NSU’s College of Dental Medicine follow Wednesday’s Florida Bulldog report that NSU will pay $5.5 million to settle a class-action suit about how, during approximately the same time period, student dentists training in orthodontics failed to properly sterilize equipment used on more than 1,100 patients, mostly children.
Jay Cohen, an attorney for the plaintiff’s class of patients, told Florida Bulldog, “This happened because they were booking multiple procedures at the orthodontic clinic and the students were not capable or able to adequately sterilize for the next patients,” he said. NSU “knew about it for many, many months before they ever disclosed it to the patients.”
Zhang attended graduate studies at NSU’s Davie campus between the fall of 2014 and May 2018, when he graduated with a degree as a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). “Near the end of his final semester, [Zhang] discovered that numerous clinical instructors and team leaders were not licenses dentists nor did they hold a teaching permit,” the complaint says. “This caused him to delve into historical NSU records” about instructors and computer reports of patient procedures… These records established NSU’s pervasive and longstanding practice” of using instructors who lacked required credentials.
High cost to become a dentist
Each year about 125 students seek to graduate with DMD degrees. Another 100 postdoctoral students/residents seek degrees in specialties like endodontics, oral surgery and orthodontics, the complaint says.
Annual tuition for a four-year dental program exceeded $60,000, “and a vast majority” of the college’s students received Title IV financial assistance, the complaint says. In Zhang’s case, financial aid “exceeded $240,000.”
The last two years of the dental program are mostly clinic-based coursework involving the practice of dentistry “on actual patients” at the college’s teaching clinics. The courses are taught by faculty clinic instructors who directly supervise the students providing dental services, the complaint says.
“During the period of August 2016 to May 2018 (and believed to be continuing), NSU systematically and consistently assigned ineligible instructors (who held no Florida dental license and no Florida teaching permit) for clinic-based coursework at its teaching facilities,” the complaint says. “NSU repeatedly misrepresented the legal qualifications of its clinical faculty instructors assigned to its teaching clinics, while concealing the serious violations of Florida licensing requirements… It created a significant risk to patient health and safety.”
The complaint cites the examples of four unlicensed instructors, identified in the complaint only by their initials. “Aside from allowing rampant unlicensed practice of dentistry detrimental to patients, [the college’s] degree programs deprived its students of instructors that met the qualifications necessary to teach clinical courses and misrepresented the quality and nature of the instructional services.”
Zhang’s complaint also provides specific examples from his own coursework from 2016 to 2018 of patients he said received treatment overseen by “ineligible and legally unqualified instructors.” The patients, identified by their initials, received implanted bridgework, a porcelain crown, dentures and root canal work.
In these examples, unlicensed or unqualified instructors operated on one patient “using a high-speed handpiece” and on another using an “endodontic file.”
“These are not isolated examples,” the complaint says. Every day coursework happened under the supervision of unlicensed instructors. “At any given time there were on average four or five ineligible instructors assigned to clinical coursework at the [pre-doctoral] clinic. Accordingly, the graduating classes of 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 encompassing hundreds of dental students, were impacted.”