By LILA FUJIMOTO, Staff Writer
WAILUKU - A Maui dentist who has worked to provide dental care for poor people has been acquitted of charges alleging she submitted fraudulent Medicaid claims.
In verdicts returned Monday afternoon, a 2nd Circuit Court jury found Dr. Wendie Schwab not guilty of all 28 counts of medical assistance fraud.
"When they said 28 times that she was not guilty, it was everything we had said from the very beginning - that she would be vindicated," said Schwab's attorney, David Sereno. "She did everything within the bounds of the law, and they charged her anyway."
The charges against the 56-year-old Wailuku resident stemmed from Medicaid billings for $4,000 to $5,000 in dental services provided from May to September 2003 to clients of Hui No Ke Ola Pono.
At the time, Schwab was oral health director for the Wailuku-based nonprofit organization that provides services to Native Hawaiians.
Deputy Attorney General Gary Senaga, in opening statements to jurors as the trial began Sept. 22, said Schwab submitted the claims for reimbursement for fees and costs that were covered by the Hui. He said some of the claims were for work done by another Hui dentist.
In her contract with the Hui, Schwab was paid $90,000 a year for work that included education, prevention and outreach, Senaga said.
"There were no complaints; the work was getting done," Senaga said.
But he said that Mei-Ling Isaacs, who was Hui executive director at the time, had questions when she discovered a billing clerk hired by Schwab was going through Hui patient files in late 2003.
In February 2004, Schwab turned in a spreadsheet showing that she had collected $16,000 in Medicaid fees during an eight- to nine-month period while expenditures totaled $14,000, Senaga said.
In addition to paying the salary of a billing clerk and for software and Internet services, Schwab used the money to pay more than $200 a month in health care premiums for the other dentist's daughter because the cost wasn't covered by the Hui, Sereno said. He said she also wrote a $2,000 check to the Hui.
"It was always her intent to just help the Hui," Sereno said after the verdicts were announced. "She wasn't just doing dental work. She would travel to schools, do oral health programs, check kids at schools."
In closing arguments to jurors, Sereno said Schwab was a qualified Medicaid dental provider who was legally entitled to submit bills and receive payments. As a provider, she was allowed to file claims for the other Hui dentist, who was under Schwab's supervision, Sereno said.
He argued that there is no law saying Schwab was ineligible for the payments because she worked at another facility.
"They charged her with making false statements to obtain compensation greater than entitled to," Sereno said. "There was no law to substantiate the claim the state has been making."
After hearing testimony and reviewing evidence including more than 60 exhibits presented over two weeks, jurors deliberated for about two hours before returning the verdicts Monday afternoon. Several of Schwab's friends, who also sat through portions of the trial, were in the courtroom gallery when the verdicts were announced.
After fighting the charges for more than three years and putting her dental practice on hold, Schwab was relieved by the outcome, Sereno said.
He said Schwab remains a licensed dentist, but he advised her to stop being a Medicaid provider after the charges arose.
"She lives to help the disenfranchised; she lives to help the poor," Sereno said. "Now, when she gets back into it, she's just going to do it for free."
In addition to helping set up the Hui's oral health care program, Schwab held dental clinics in schools for youngsters whose parents didn't have dental insurance.
She has been an advocate for Medicaid patients and a critic of the program's severe limits on services for uninsured people.
Senaga couldn't be reached for comment.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.