Orthodontist Helps Clamp Down on Medicaid Dental Fraud, Abuse

A Texas orthodontist took a circuitous path to opening her own practice.

Christine Ellis had no intention of following in her father’s footsteps. In fact, the daughter of a successful central Florida-based orthodontist was determined to forge a different path.

“I wanted to do my own thing,” Ellis explains. “That was my thought process in college.”

But three years in, her thought process changed.

“I came to realize there were a lot of things about dentistry that I liked, and a lot of things about medicine that I was not attracted to,” Ellis says.

Part of that was managed care. Ellis recalls it was the 1980s, and there weren’t many physicians talking about how great their career was. Before she knew it, she was indeed following her father.

“People I knew who were dentists besides my dad spoke very highly of it,” she says. “They loved their job. It was a pretty compelling argument.”

Heck of a Commute

Today, Ellis, DDS, MSD, is a highly successful orthodontist based in Dallas who opened her first private practice late in 2015. And she took a bit of a circuitous route getting there.

For 20 years she cared for patients at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. But the unusual part of her journey was the regular trips she made to Orlando to practice with her father. Ellis routinely flew back to her hometown to practice at least one week—sometimes two—each month. She still makes those trips, though not as often.

“We’ve worked together for 20 years, since I came out of school,” Ellis says. “I’m happy I’m working with him, but the first year working with my dad was not fun.”

That’s because her father never had an associate. It was his office. So not only did he bring on an associate, he brought in his daughter. But once they figured out how to work together, it was great.

“He’s a great mentor,” Ellis says. “He has a very good practice. And I get to go back and see my parents.”

Making a Difference

Ellis has spent years serving as a special expert and witness on fraudulent Medicaid and billing practices in the dental industry. Her Congressional testimony has helped bring attention to an issue that costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year. And it all began when she joined the craniofacial team at the Children’s Medical Center.

“Most of the kids who have a craniofacial issue, their orthodontics is going to be funded by Medicaid—at least in Texas,” Ellis explains. “I was involved in the Medicaid program for about 10 years. And over the course of those 10 years working in the hospitals, I saw cases coming in that were not my cases. They were being treated in the community. And the reason I got involved in it was not the financial issue, it was the harm.”

Ellis says the children who were coming in for treatment were being poorly treated. The oral surgeons at the medical center had to take risks in their surgery because the treatment that the children were receiving was so bad.

“I was concerned about patient harm from negligent practitioners more than I was from the taxpayer point of view,” Ellis says. “I mean, obviously, as a taxpayer, that concerns me as well. But the bigger issue was the patient harm in pediatric dental Medicaid settings.”

Unique Mindset

Ellis says her goal in becoming involved was to put a stop to some of the abuses that were occurring. That has happened.

“The crazy every child who has teeth gets braces scenario has changed,” she says. “So I’m glad we touched the needle there. But Medicaid fraud is still a huge issue. I learned a lot about the political process, and I’m glad to be a dentist.”

Also glad because she has the mindset to work with a patient base of children with craniofacial issues and special needs.

“Not every doctor is going to be one who finds that environment rewarding,” she explains. “And that’s not a judgment call on them. Everybody’s got their gift and their calling. That’s something that was really interesting to me.”

Ellis believes that taking on complex orthodontic cases has made her a better orthodontist. She also acknowledges that the degree of improvement she sees with these children is tremendous; their lives changed to such a great extent. And she loves the team environment in which she works.

“You get to work with other really smart medical professionals and dentists,” Ellis says. “If you like collaborating with people, working with a group, it’s a nice setting to be in.”

The Private Practice

Now Ellis—while still putting in time at the Children’s Medical Center, and traveling, albeit less frequently, to work with her father in Orlando—is launching her own private practice.

“I’m almost 50 years old,” she laughs. “If I didn’t do this now, I was not going to do it.”

Thus far, seven months into the process, Ellis admits that it’s been a daunting but not overwhelming task. She says she has learned a great deal about putting systems into place, and appreciating the things that “you can’t put a dollar sign on.” That’s because now she’s an owner.

“A lot of dentists work where they’re employed,” she says. “As an owner, I definitely have an appreciation more for that now than I did a year ago.”

But she still finds time for her family, including attending Little League baseball games and swim meets, as well as herself. She enjoys reading, as well as riding her bike at White Rock Lake, a nearby public park.

“There aren’t too many safe places to ride a bike in Dallas,” she says. “So if you’re going to get into country riding, you have to put your bike in the car and get out of the city.”

It gives Ellis a chance to recharge her batteries, and reflect on a challenging but rewarding career.

“I’m almost 50 years old, and I feel like I’m almost kind of starting a new career that keeps what I’m doing really interesting, but it’s still in the same line of work,” she says. “I’m very glad I ended up as a dentist.”