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(NECN: Peter Howe, Fall River, Mass.) It's a story that has touched a nerve here and across New England: the dentist accused of using paper clips in patients' root canals instead of dental-grade stainless steel.
"That's amazing. That's unbelievable,'' said Ken Carvalho, a former patient of Dr. Mark Clair at Harbour Dental in the New Harbour Mall off Route 81 here. "I can't believe that somebody would do that. That's crazy.'' Carvalho said he began coming to Harbour Dental around 2004 and had back teeth pulled and other dental work.
Harbour Dental closed abruptly in January 2008, according to mall neighbors. That was as the practice and Clair were coming under intensifying scrutiny by state Medicaid fraud investigators and prosecutors in Attorney General Martha Coakley's office.
Elaine Scolaro of Fall River, who was at the mall shopping Wednesday, remembered that her late husband, Phillip, had had a root canal done at Harbour Dental. "It went bad," she said. "He had the root canal done on his back side, the molars. He was in pain for months on end. He wasn't feeling good at all. It made him sicker [rather] than better.'' When we asked her if she thought maybe he had been one of the victims who got a paper clip installed to fill his root canal instead of dental-grade stainless steel, she said, "I think he had the paper clip put in. His face was swollen for months on end. [He] got infected and everything.''
The paper clip charges were just one part of a multi-count indictment handed up by a Bristol County grand jury late last week after an investigation led by prosecutors in Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's office and fraud investigators in the state agency that oversees the Massachusetts Medicaid program. The indictment alleges among that Clair made $130,000 in bogus Medicaid claims and illegally prescribed painkillers to office employees whom he then pressured to give him back the pills. Clair now lives in Maryland, according to Coakley's office. NECN couldn't reach him before air time Wednesday or learn if he has a lawyer representing him.
A key question aides to Coakley said they couldn't answer Wednesday: Just how many people had non-dental-grade steel put in their teeth, and what kind of long-term health risks do they face. Standard paper clips are made from galvanized steel wire cut and twisted into rounded shapes, and can rust.
How much would you save if you were an allegedly crooked dentist and you started using paper clips instead of stainless surgical steel for root canals? We did some research, and found that at one leading online dental supply house, Pearson Dental Supply Co., stainless steel dental posts run $89.95 for 36, or $2.50 per post.
At the Staples store in the mall across from the former Harbour Dental practice, a shrink-wrapped package of five boxes of paper clips, or 500 clips total, cost $3.18, or about five-eights of a cent per clip. Just how many root canals you can fill with a cut-up paper clip isn't clear.
Clair is due to be arraigned April 8 in the criminal division of Bristol Superior Court in New Bedford. At that time, state prosecutors are expected to disclose far more details about how the paper-clip and other charges came to their attention and how many people might have been affected.
Ken Carvalho doesn't have too many bad memories of Harbour Dental. "It was cheap. It took my insurance, which was a big deal at the time. … It wasn't the greatest dentist I've been to, but he was good.'' Carvalho said he couldn't remember specifically if Mark Clair or another dentist treated him but said, "It wasn't too painful. He wasn't gentle by any means but it wasn't too harmful.''
But Phillip Scolaro's widow, recalling the pain and suffering he went through after his botched Harbour Dental root canal, wants hard time. "Severe. Throw away the key. That dentist needs to be put away and throw away the key. Let him rot in you-know-where.''