Parents of former patients, an attorney and Health and Human Services are claiming a chain of orthodontics clinics are committing patient abandonment.
After Texas Medicaid cut off reimbursement to Sun Orthodonix, amid a fraud investigation by the Texas Office of Inspector General, the chain of clinics in turn cut off treatment to its Medicaid patients still in the midst of orthodontic treatment.
The move has left hundreds of teens and adolescents with braces on their teeth but no doctors treating them.
One El Paso orthodontist estimates up to 4,000 El Paso kids could be affected from the response from Sun Orthodontix and other local clinics which may be doing the same to their Medicaid patients.
Not having a doctor is a hard fact to swallow for two Northeast El Paso teens well into their orthodontic treatment they had be undertaking with Sun Orthodontix.
The pair has fought through the discomfort of braces, the pain of tooth extractions and even the stretching of their mouths by orthodontic devices.
"He ran a fever he was in pain, he didn't eat," the boys' mother Emma Diaz said about her 14-year-old, Issac. "And now it's like we go through all of that and what now?"
Diaz says her sons showed up to their routine orthodontics appointment at Sun's Northeast El Paso location in June, where they were handed letters giving the boys two options: have the braces removed by Sun, or leave the braces on and find another orthodontist.
"It would be considered patient abandonment," Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said. "And it's true for dentists, orthodontists, doctors, it's fairly standard across the medical profession."
A patient contract obtained by ABC-7 from when a teenager first got her braces at a Sun Orthodontix clinic in El Paso reads:
"Good news! Once the braces have been placed, your treatment is fully covered. Even if you happen to lose your insurance, by keeping your monthly appointments, you are guaranteeing that your insurance will continue to pay for services rendered."
But even though the patient kept her appointments, as soon as Medicaid cut its payments to Sun Orthodontix, a subsidiary of National Orthodontix Mgmt, treatment was cut as well.
Sun Orthodontix's attorney, Frank Sheeder, would not address this "guarantee," but he did say the clinics are following the process for terminating and transferring care.
Sheeder says the state pre-approved the treatments, then without warning, put a hold on Medicaid reimbursement five months ago.
In an email, Sheeder writes:
"An orthodontic practice can't reasonably be expected to continue to provide services for free for such a long time."
In the letters to patients, Sun states that it has been forced to lay off more than a hundred employees and four orthodontists.
Still, Goodman says lack of payment should not translate into lack of treatment.
She says doctors have a professional obligation to finish what they started or they could face consequences.
"In those cases where we have an orthodontist, who is accepting Medicaid, put braces on a child or did any treatment, in most cases braces, and now says that because the payment's not there, 'I'm not going to continue the treatment'? We will be referring those to the dental board, who we're working very closely with," Goodman said. "And they've assured us they will move on those cases."
That assurance is not of much comfort to 16-year-old Andy Diaz.
He has had four teeth extracted as per his course of treatment prescribed by his orthodontist at Sun Orthodontix.
He has been left with the braces on his teeth and big gaps where his teeth used to lie.
"If they can at least just close the bottom ones, I'd be happy," Andy Diaz said. "You can't leave a kid with gapped teeth."
They already have, but for how much longer is the real question.
ABC-7 spoke with the owner and founder of Sun Orthodontix, Dr. John G. "Jack" Vondrak, when he was in El Paso recently.
Vondrak refused to comment on the record.
No charges have been filed against Vondrak, Sun Orthodontix or National Orthodontix.