CALL7 finds records issues, unspent funds and possible conflicts of interest in state dental program

DENVER - A state-run program that provides dental assistance for low-income senior citizens did not allocate one-third of its funds in the past fiscal year and has lost its largest provider, a CALL7 Investigation found. Those problems are contributing to a backlog of hundreds of patients waiting for care.

"I have problems with my digestive system because when you can't chew properly and you can't eat properly, you have problems," said Sandra Boyet who wears a 40-year-old set of dentures that are in disrepair.

A new set, she said, would significantly improve her overall health.

Boyet, now retired, she said she's never turned to the government for assistance before. With new dentures costing up to $800, and the associated care hundreds of dollars more, Boyet said she needs help.

"When you're on a fixed income, these types of services are very hard to maintain for yourself," she said.

Boyet is among 1,300 seniors in Denver waiting for treatment under a $3 million state initiative called the Old Age Pension Dental Assistance Program.  When seniors complained to 7NEWS, the CALL7 Investigators took a closer look at the program, finding:

- In the past fiscal year, $1 million went unspent.

- A dispute with Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment prompted the departure of the program's largest contracted provider, leaving patients in limbo.

- The governor-appointed Dental Advisory Committee has kept spotty records of decisions showing who voted to allocate millions of dollars in grants.

- Some members of the committee voted to renew contracts to organizations with which they have affiliations, raising the specter of a potential conflict of interest.

- A senior citizen position on the seven-member committee otherwise staffed by industry experts and insiders remains vacant.

Boyet has been waiting three years to obtain new dentures. Though she meets the program's requirements, she said she lacks an ID number that would allow her to schedule an appointment.

"It's unfair, because I've worked a lot of years, spent a lot of money in taxes, and I feel that I should have these services now that I happen to need it," she said.

Mary Savoy, another hopeful denture recipient, was at first "elated" to learn she'd be getting new teeth to replace her cracked ones.

But her provider, Comfort Dental of East Colfax, which served more patients than any other provider, left the program following a dispute with the public health department.

Savoy's appointment was canceled and she was left without care.

"I called my girlfriend and said to her 'Jeez! I'm going to get my teeth!' you know," she said. "Then I find out, 'No, you're not going to get them'"

Steve Holloway, a member of the committee and the public health department's equity and access director, defended the program.

"We are doing our best to meet the needs of seniors in the community," he said.

He said the $1 million that went unspent in the last year will be rolled over to help provide more care this year.

The program, which began in 1977, recently experienced budget cuts. When those cuts were reversed about two years ago, it meant services had to be ramped back up, Holloway added.

"In the first year, there are a lot of administrative activities," he said.

CALL7 Investigators found basic records were lacking -- such as which members specifically voted in November 2012 to award 19 contracts. The only record state officials claimed to have available were meeting minutes, which showed only who attended the meeting and that the vote to award contracts was "unanimous."

What the minutes do not indicate is who exactly voted and whether any members abstained.

That's important to know because some committee members are affiliated with organizations and institutions that received grants through the program.

In an affidavit prepared in response to 7NEWS' research, committee member and University of Colorado professor Robert Berg claims he did not participate in a November 2012 vote awarding a grant to the University's School of Dental Medicine, where he teaches.

"I recused myself and did not take part in any discussions concerning University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine's pending grant application, nor did I participate in the vote on that application," Berg's affidavit claims.

However, according to March 2013 committee minutes, Berg was among "yea" votes to renew a grant contract to the dental school.

Last month, when asked by CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon about the potential for a conflict of interest during a committee meeting break, Berg claimed: "I don't think I'm really on the committee when the dental school is considered."

Berg's affidavit did not mention the March vote.

The potential conflict concerned John Kefalas, a Fort Collins Democrat who sits on the state Senate's Health and Human Services committee.

"We must be very, very sensitive and mindful to perception, especially when we're using taxpayer dollars," Kefalas said. "If you are going to directly benefit, or you know, a company or organization you are involved with, is going to benefit, then you need to recuse yourself. That does not appear to have been occurring on all occasions."

Kefalas added the committee would also likely benefit from filling its vacant senior citizen seat.

"Anytime you have consumers serving on these boards, I think that just enhances the process," he said. "It helps us understand the reality of folks that are being directly impacted."

As it is, patients like Mary Savoy, are hoping the committee will ensure she receives care. She just wants to know when the waiting will be over.

"If the money is there, why don't they make it a priority?" Savoy said.

For more information about the OAP Dental Assistance Program, contact the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Oral Health Unit at 303-692-2470. Sen. Kefalas urges seniors who have experienced problems with the program to call him at 303-866-4841.

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If you have a news tip, or follow-up to this story, e-mail Keli.Rabon@kmgh.com. You can also connect with me on Facebook or through Twitter @KeliRabon.