Avery Techeira said she wants to apologize to patients of the Signature Smiles dental office in Garden Oaks, where several area residents received oral healthcare before it abruptly closed Jan. 20.
Techeira said she worked as a receptionist there during its final month of operation, after spending about a year at the affiliated location in Humble. She said that office closed in mid-December, shortly after the owner filed for bankruptcy, and she suspected the Garden Oaks location might suffer a similar fate since it also was owned by Dr. Terry Lee.
But the office continued to operate, and Techeira said it continued to take on new patients and continued to take payments for services that had yet to be provided.
“They basically signed a deal with the devil,” she said.
Patients of the now-closed dental office at 3800 N. Shepherd Dr., Suite 3A, many of whom have said they paid in advance for services that weren’t provided and received no advance warning of the closure, are not the only ones who feel slighted by Signature Smiles. Techeira and another employee, Jacqueline Diaz, said they have not been paid for their final few weeks of work and have received no indication that they will be compensated.
Both employees also alleged that Signature Smiles operated illegally and unethically. Information provided by the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners (TSBDE) suggests the office might be in violation of state laws based on the manner in which it closed and its subsequent handling of patients’ medical records.
TSBDE executive director Boyd Bush called the abrupt closure “pretty tragic” and “pretty rare” and described the circumstances surrounding it as a red flag. Harris County court records show that Lee and the Signature Smiles Garden Oaks office were sued for more than $95,000 in November for allegedly defaulting on payments for medical equipment, but Bush said most dental offices can make that amount of money fairly quickly.
“The fact that they walked away makes you wonder what’s really going on here,” he said. “There has to be more underlying reasons than just one little thing. If this happens, there’s something serious going on.”
Court records show that Lee is the registered agent for both the Garden Oaks and Humble locations. He and the Humble office were sued early last year by Dr. Kathy Nguyen, who worked for the business and alleged that it fraudulently used her professional identification numbers to bill and receive payments from Medicaid, Medicare and other payers for services and treatments that she did not provide. Nguyen also alleged that Signature Smiles wrongfully profited off her identity.
Diaz and Techeira, who said they worked at Signature Smiles’ offices in Garden Oaks, Humble and The Woodlands during their employment, both described a similar practice at the Garden Oaks location. After the affiliated and adjacent Alliance Surgical Center closed in December, Diaz and Techeira said its address continued to be used to bill for services that were provided at the dental office.
Diaz, who said she worked as an insurance and treatment coordinator, said the address on the billing documents should have been changed to the location where the service was provided.
Techeira said she discovered that several patients at the Garden Oaks office had received treatments and paid for them without having service contracts on file. She also said there were cases in which patients made payments but their accounts were not updated to reflect that, which resulted in some overpaying for services.
Marlene Alvarez, a member of a recently formed Facebook group called “Screwed by Signature Smiles,” said she was a patient of Dr. Josh Lee at the Humble location. She said he transferred to The Woodlands office after the Humble location closed, and she subsequently saw him there.
But Alvarez said she was told by The Woodlands office that the payments she made in Humble could not be applied, so she would have to pay again. She also said she was told to contact the Garden Oaks office, where she had not received treatment, to obtain her records from the Humble office.
An employee who answered the phone at The Woodlands office last week said it was not affiliated with the other Signature Smiles locations in the Houston area, but Diaz and Techeira disputed that. They both said employees at all three offices had remote access to the others’ medical and financial records.
“They have the capability, 100 percent,” Diaz said. “At this point, I would say it’s almost like a refusal for them to want to assess or help out the other patients that were abandoned.”
Bush said patients or employees who believe they are owed money by a dental office should hire an attorney and pursue legal action to recoup those funds. He said patients who believe their rights have been violated by a dentist or dental office can file a complaint at tsbde.texas.gov, and his agency will investigate and possibly refer the case to the Texas Attorney General.
According to the TSBDE, state law requires dental practices to notify patients when they are in the process of closing. Dentists must provide patients at least 30 days written notice of their intent to discontinue treatment. Once dentists have begun treatment, they are not allowed to abandon patients without reasonable cause and giving patients the opportunity to obtain the services of another dentist.
Patients also are entitled to copies of their dental records, which dentists must keep for a period of not less than five years from the last date of treatment. If a dentist leaves a location or practice, he or she is required to maintain all dental records, make a written transfer of records to a succeeding dentist or make a written agreement for the maintenance of records.
Techeira said she regrets that the Signature Smiles office in Garden Oaks, which she said saw between 50-60 patients per day, did not provide advance notice of its closure and offer refunds to patients who paid for treatments that would not be completed.
“We just shut down on them,” she said. “We just left them clueless.”