Patients out thousands after orthodontist who owes bank $2.8M abruptly shuts down practice

Parents who sent their children to a Calgary orthodontist say they’re owed thousands of dollars after the decades-old business in Brentwood closed last month over financial problems.
Dr. Richard Halpern's orthodontist office in Brentwood shut down in late January after the Royal Bank sent in bailiffs to seize property over unpaid debt.

Parents who sent their children to a Calgary orthodontist say they're owed thousands of dollars after the decades-old business in Brentwood closed last month over financial problems.

Some parents say they paid Dr. Richard Halpern's office up front while others were on monthly payment plans, but they say their children received only partial care or no care at all.

Dawn Moore paid $7,800 in a lump sum in November to get braces for her 14-year-old daughter. Her two other daughters already had dental work done through the same office — under different ownership — and she preferred the simplicity of having a single payment on her credit card.

"I paid the whole amount and I haven't received any services," Moore said. "It's just a really crappy thing to have to deal with, and it's disillusioning because you think you should be able to trust people."

Moore says she's seeking relief from her credit card company but worries she will have to start all over again with a new orthodontist. The cost of the braces is about 20 per cent of her income.

"It just means no holidays this year."

Halpern company owes $2.8 million

A former co-owner of the practice, Dr. Ronald Wolk, estimated Halpern had roughly 500 patients, though not all of them were necessarily receiving active treatment.

Halpern declined to be interviewed. He sent a brief text message: "Because of pending court proceedings, I cannot comment."

According to corporate documents, a company owned by Halpern owes nearly $2.8 million to the Royal Bank of Canada, which sent bailiffs to his northwest offices in late January to seize dozens of items, from dental equipment to office chairs.

The Royal Bank, owed almost $2.8 million, sent bailiffs to Dr. Richard Halpern's offices in late January to seize dozens of items, from printers and fridges to dental tools and chairs, corporate records show. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

A day earlier, Halpern sent an email to his clients.

"For several personal reasons," he wrote, "I am no longer able to provide you with orthodontic care."

He added he had arranged to have two other orthodontists, Dr. Randeep Chana and Dr. Vivek Cheba, provide his patients with care at the same offices on Crowchild Trail N.W.

Chana and Cheba say they never agreed to that. In a joint interview, they said Halpern, a former classmate of theirs at the University of Manitoba, had earlier contacted them explaining his bank had called in a loan and that he would have to close his doors within days. He asked for their help.

The two orthodontists ultimately stepped in to temporarily maintain custody of Halpern's patient records, under the direction of the Alberta Dental Association and College. Chana and Cheba had staff open the office last week allowing parents of patients to pick up their records so they can receive care elsewhere.

A day before his offices were raided by bailiffs, Dr. Richard Halpern sent an email to clients saying he could no longer be their orthodontist. It's partially shown here. (CBC)

The dental watchdog and regulator said in a statement on its website it's concerned about Halpern's former patients who "have been given contradictory information, and are understandably confused and frustrated."

"The ADA&C, along with the Alberta Society of Orthodontists, have reached out to the larger orthodontic community in Calgary and area to help provide resources for these patients, including being as accommodating as possible regarding treatment fees," the statement said.

'Unprecedented situation'

The society has posted the names of more than 30 orthodontists who are accepting Halpern's patients, though some are as far away as Edmonton.

The dental association, meanwhile, said it's investigating a complaint against Halpern but declined to disclose what the complaint alleges. The watchdog said a complaints director will determine whether there is enough evidence of unprofessional conduct to hold a hearing into the case.

"Based on the calls we have received, this is an unprecedented situation," an association spokesperson said.

Wolk and Dr. Barry Hoffman say they started the orthodontic practice in the same office in 1978. They sold the business to Halpern in 2016 and stayed on as associates for about two more years.

Dr. Richard Halpern bought the Brentwood orthodontist practice from Dr. Ronald Wolk and Dr. Barry Hoffman in 2016. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

Hoffman retired in November. Wolk said he left a month earlier "because I was not comfortable with [Halpern's] hiring and use of unlicensed staff to carry out care for the patients."

"My concern was growing as I witnessed uncertified assistants performing duties that I knew were not within their purview," Wolk said, adding the tasks included changing wires and preparing teeth for brackets.

Halpern declined to comment on the allegation, citing potential legal issues.

Former owners shocked by closure

Hoffman says he was not aware of any financial troubles at the practice before he retired three months ago.

Wolk said Halpern "was very concerned about the cost of running the practice," but Wolk had no idea the troubles would ultimately close the business.

"It's difficult to understand how an ongoing business for 40 years as a staple in the community could be taken to such a level within such a short time," Wolk said.

"It's gut-wrenching on behalf of the profession. It's gut-wrenching for the patients that are victims in the situation."

'We're left with nothing'

Twila Gaudet says she has two children who were Hoffman's clients before he retired and passed them on to Halpern. She paid $15,000 in a series of monthly installments, but her children are only part-way through their treatment. They still have braces on their teeth.

Gaudet picked up dental records from the office last week, but she says they were incomplete, lacking a treatment plan, which she was told she'd be entitled to.

Twila Gaudet paid $15,000 for two children to get braces, but they're not finished their treatment. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

"I have no idea how much it's going to cost us to go someplace else. I'm guessing thousands more," she said.  

"This isn't a run-of-the-mill renovation company that's knocked on my door and wants to put shingles on my roof. Originally, we were with Dr. Hoffman. He's practised in Calgary for years."

She worries there is little recourse for her.

"It's a regulated industry and yet the Alberta Dental Association says you're out of luck. So, the consumer, we're left with nothing."