Drilling for dollars: Tooth or truth decay?

By James Quiggle
April 12, 2005
Amy Suda was perplexed.

She’d booked a routine dental cleaning, only to have dentist Dr. Alireza Asgari say she needed a root canal, five cavities filled and several wisdom teeth yanked.

How strange. Her previous dentist had given her a clean bill of health just six months prior.

Still, Suda trusted Asgari and had most of the work done despite her doubts. Her mouth soon grew infected.

“He kept telling me that it was part of the healing process, that it was all in my head and there was nothing wrong. Then he said a cyst had developed and I had to have surgery again,” she testified at his criminal trial this March.

If prosecutors are right, Asgara subjected Suda and dozens of other healthy patients to hundreds of painful, worthless — and often botched — treatments at his Wilkes-Barre, Pa. dental clinic.

Asgari’s motive: A $366,000 jackpot in fraudulent billings from insurance companies, prosecutors allege.

Useless root canals, extractions, sinus surgeries, cavity fillings and tooth restorations were among Asgari’s grisly dental work, prosecutors charge.

Asgari was the hand-picked successor to a respected local dentist who was retiring. Patients were impressed by Asgari’s reassuring, caring manner. He’d also upgraded the office with sleek, modern new equipment. A wall full of diplomas added to his authority when he told patients they needed oral surgery.

Like Kathryn Mizzer

She also went in for a routine checkup, expecting no problems. It turned into a nightmare of unrelenting pain, she says.

Asgari replaced all of her fillings and re-treated an earlier root canal. Slivers of his metal dental file fell out and lodged in her mouth during the surgery, causing an infection. Several of the new fillings also fell out afterward, she said.

Dozens of Asgari’s patients received worthless root canals even though they didn’t have swelling or severe pain, an oral surgeon testified.

Elizabeth Mangan’s teeth were fine under her previous dentist. But Asgari told her she suddenly needed several teeth drilled, plus two root canals.

She was in steady pain afterward and went to another dentist. He found a broken dental instrument stuck in one tooth, and had to extract another tooth Asgari had damaged.

Another dentist found several glass beads inserted in the mouth of one woman Asgari had treated. Glass beads have no dental purpose, an orthodontist testified.

James Hakim was pain-free when he first visited Asgari. But over the next several months, Asgari drilled several teeth for new fillings. He also gave Hakim two root canals, drilled a tooth down and inserted a crown, performed a sinus operation, and removed the root end of a tooth.

Hakim spent months in agony before straightening out his problems with another dentist.

Asgari fitted braces on an 8-year-old boy’s upper and lower teeth even though he didn’t need them, an orthodontist testified. Normally a dentist would wait until the boy’s other teeth grown before deciding whether he needs braces, the orthodontist testified in court against Asgari.

Asgari abruptly closed his office and skipped to California as patient complaints mounted. That left patients scrambling to find a new dentist and retrieve their dental records stashed in a storage unit.

Despite the thicket of diplomas he displayed, it’s unclear whether he even graduated from dental school, according to news reports.

Medical treatments often require judgment calls that dentists can reasonably debate. So Asgari could’ve made aggressive but plausible decisions when deciding to operate. Certainly this will be one of his defenses, his lawyers say. So he may well be innocent.

But whatever happens at his lengthy criminal trial, Asgari faces more than 150 malpractice suits from angry patients.

In deciding his fate, the courts thus must decide whether Asgari’s case is about tooth decay, or advanced truth decay.

View previous "Fraud Cases of the Month"

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