Recent cases of bogus dentists and physicians practicing in Queens send a shudder through us all. And anyone who’s ever built a house or undertaken renovations knows too well how expensive, time-consuming, and heartbreaking badly executed work can be.
But what can you do if you’re the victim of professional incompetence or negligence?
Enter the Office of Professional Discipline, a little known, but important part of the state Department of Education.
“There are 750,000 licensed professionals in New York State working in 47 different professions,” said Daniel Kelleher, director of investigations, for the Office of Professional Discipline.
The DOE has issued licenses to professionals since the late 1800s and today is responsible for issuing, administering and investigating licenses to architects, engineers, nurses, dentists, dental hygienists, certified public accountants, chiropractors, acupuncturists, nurses, massage therapists and mental health therapists such as marriage counselors, among others.
“We don’t issue licenses to doctors, but investigate instances where unlicensed individuals practice medicine,” Kelleher said.
A recent case in point highlights his office’s work. William Ramirez-Conception, 47, a resident of East Elmhurst, was arrested and charged with unlawfully practicing medicine and endangering the life of a patient by providing him with cosmetic injections which resulted in infection and facial disfigurement.
According to the Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, medical books, receipts for medical supplies and other items generally associated with the practice of medicine were discovered. Ramirez was alleged to have told an undercover investigator that he could perform cosmetic injection to enlarge the investigator’s lips for $400.
Kelleher, who oversaw this investigation, said, “It helps us do a better job if people will report instances of misconduct.”
The OFD has a close working relationship with Brown’s Office, the NYPD and state and city agencies like the Department of Buildings.
“Many times, if a professional such as an architect has lost his or her right to self certify they may also be guilty of professional misconduct or not abiding by the rules. These cases are automatically passed onto us,” Kelleher said.
He cited the example of an engineer named Donald Ross. “By chance, one of our investigators monitoring jobs, remembered that Donald Ross had gone to Florida,” Kelleher said, explaining that another man called Donald Ross had gotten a duplicate license issued to himself and then undertook additions to houses, put on porches, renovated buildings and added extensions on homes.
The phony Donald Ross was arrested and pleaded guilty, but later still felt secure going to another location and setting up business again. “We do have instances of recidivism,” Kelleher said.
In Queens 37 architects were referred to the Office by the city Department of Buildings last year and 21 engineers. “Most referrals came about due to complaints of dissatisfaction by clients,” he said.
The task facing the office is daunting, with 66 investigators taking on 8,000 cases in New York state last year.
Last month, three individuals — including a married couple — were arrested in Queens on charges of unlawfully practicing dentistry in Jackson Heights and Fresh Meadows.
Each was charged with first-degree reckless endangerment and unauthorized practice of a profession. They face up to seven years in prison.
“It is very unusual for someone with no knowledge of dentistry to pretend to be a dentist,” Kelleher said, adding that often in these cases the person had been a dental hygienist in their country of origin.
A couple of years ago the office helped the NYPD nab a Howard Beach pharmacists for recycling prescription drugs. The scam involved buying prescription drugs from Medicaid patients, recycling them to the Howard Beach pharmacy and reselling them, this time at market prices.
“Fertility drugs and high-end antibiotics are very commonly seen in this type of case,” Kelleher said, explaining that the police department had invited his office into that investigation.
The office has a sophisticated electronic surveillance system. Names are fed in and immediately it’s known if the person is not licensed.
The office uses all the typical investigative tools, such as, hidden recording devices, videos and undercover operatives.
According to Kelleher, the biggest obstacle faced by the office in Queens is how to enter the various ethnic enclaves. “There is always a certain reliance on individuals from your own country,” he said. “There are medical modalities in countries like China, Puerto Rico and Yugoslavia that people have an affinity to.”
To check if an individual is licensed, go to www.op.nysed.gov or call toll free 1-800-442-8106
If a professional is not licensed, the insurance companies won’t work with them. This can be a good clue as to if someone is licensed or not.
Investigators for the department are often professionals, and according to Kelleher, the agency is always looking for licensed professionals, nurses, pharmacists or therapist to become investigators.
If violations are substantial enough, the office can take the practitioner’s license away. If, in addition, their actions are criminal, then the district attorney or NYPD can become involved.
People can make anonymous reports, but the office prefers to speak to complainants, as this is often vital to a successful investigation.