Stover investigation prompts transparency concerns in complaint process

Published: May. 13, 2014 at 8:43 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Twenty-seven complaints later, Big Island dentist and oral surgeon Dr. John Stover will never again see patients in Hawaii. Now, the focus turns to exposing holes in the dental investigative process.

The John Stover case has revealed two troubling issues with complaints: Investigations take a long time, in some cases as many as several years, and there is often a lack of transparency once a doctor has been punished.

Operator: "You're in Kealakekua okay?"

Employee: "Yes, this is Dr. Stover's office."

Operator: "Dr. Stover's office."

That is the 911 call made on December 16, 2012, when Dr. John Stover failed to remove a molar from Curtis Wagasky's mouth.

Operator: "Okay. Alright. We're already dispatched and we should be coming shortly," can heard on the recording.

Wagasky died a few days later. Stover was already being investigated, and Wagasky's death was added to the list and posted to the State Regulated Industries Complaints Office website with no details.

Dr. Stover kept practicing.

15 months later, Kristen Tavares had complications from having her wisdom teeth pulled by Dr. Stover. She is in a coma at Maui Memorial Medical Center.

There are now 27 formal complaints against Dr. Stover filed with the State, but there is a greater complaint growing as to why state investigations take so long.

"We didn't know he was dead. Until you brought it up nobody knew Curtis was dead," said Patti Miguel, Curtis Wagasky's mother. "I would think they would investigate it because he died. And I had no knowledge of it until you came on the news. I didn't know Curtis died. For a year and a half I didn't know Curtis was dead."

We spoke with Curtis Wagasky's family who say no one told them Curtis even died. They question why no police report was made or autopsy performed. They claim the death was swept under the rug, until we brought it to the public's attention.

"Because this wasn't investigated at all, to me it's kind of fishy," said Miguel.

"You're dealing with lives. If they're not going to do anything about the death of my brother and just stop the dentist from practicing at that point then this stuff can happen again," said Kevin Miguel, Wagasky's brother. "I think the investigators are actually the ones that are to blame for all of this."

Dr. Stover's case wasn't the only one to take awhile. Since 1996 we found 69 Hawaii dentists have received 84 complaints. Of them 21 are still pending, eight have been open more than two years and two have been ongoing four years.

"For our purposes we'd like the cases to be shortened as far as how long it takes," said Kealii Lopez, Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Director.

Other states act quicker. Oregon for one says, "Most case investigations are completed within six months."

Hawaii's can go on for years.

"Absolutely I think we need to improve it. Would I say that because the case hadn't been closed on that prior one it would have prevented this it would be hard for anyone to say," said Lopez. "These serious situations are where we really want to be able to focus our efforts, where there is going to be public harm and danger to someone. Maybe we have a different threshold for those types of complaints."

The other issue is secrecy. Even after a doctor is disciplined it's difficult to pick away the details. Compared to Florida where all the dirty details see the light. We found complaints saying the dentist "broke a needle off in a child's mouth," "failed to properly numb the patient causing excruciating pain," "pulled the wrong tooth twice on a child," and "seriously damaged a child's mouth by dropping the drill." With that transparency people can make an informed decision. But on Hawaii's website it's tough to tell if a complaint is about a billing issue or a death.

"For our purposes we are going to look at what we can do in regards to increasing transparency, whether it's the Board's themselves, whether the complaints history piece, we'd like to get all of that out and have increased transparency," said Lopez. "I want people to see tangible changes in what we're doing."

Because investigators should have some teeth to act quickly and hold those that have made mistakes accountable.

Lopez says there have even been efforts to reduce transparency of dentists and doctors, although the Department has resisted those efforts. The DCCA's website server is also very old. Lopez wants to budget money to make it more user friendly, but that likely won't be within a couple years.

Lawmakers we spoke with say they plan to work on legislation that would require investigations be completed in 120 days.

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