Deadbeat Doctors: Doctors/dentists on list haven't paid back thousands of your tax dollars
9:57 PM, Feb 14, 2013
8:49 AM, Feb 15, 2013
Anyone with student loans knows writing those checks months or even years after you're out of school is painful. But even while you pay, others are stiffing the feds, failing when it comes to paying back loans you funded for lots of money.
One group of deadbeats may surprise you, because we assume they have the potential to make a big income.
Doctors and dentists may end up with more student loans than most of us, but they also have the potential to make big money. ABC2 News Investigators wanted to know, if that's the case, why are we still paying their debt?
ABC2 news cameras captured the magic act of Zachary Press last week. The Baltimore dentist may want to disappear from our photographer, but there's no hiding from his past. We found him behind the counter inside his office last week.
He was wearing scrubs so we asked him if he was seeing patients. Press told us he was "Cleaning up and closing up", although records show he hasn't had an active license to practice dentistry since 2009.
Press' license was not renewed by the state Board of Dental Examiners as a result of what a city prosecutor called "tax liability issues".
Despite having no license, Press' office is still listed on the internet. And the space he uses in west Baltimore is clearly marked with signs that call him a dentist. But the feds call him something different: a deadbeat.
And he's got plenty of company.
Press and nearly 1,000 other health professionals are listed on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's public default page.
It showcases doctors and dentists who went to medical school on your dime, but didn't pay back special "Health Education Assistance Loans" they got from the federal government, even decades after graduating.
United States Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who handles the District of Maryland, tells ABC2, "it's a relatively small percentage of debtors who are unwilling to pay and uncooperative." But when they don't play fair, it's Rosenstein's job to try and get your tax dollars back.
He explains, "That's our goal, to collect on the obligation, the promise those doctors made when the government made the agreement to back the loans that would get them their education and their medical license."
But in some cases, the debtors just won't pay up. That's how they end up on the list. 17 Maryland doctors and dentists have the distinction, owing a total of $3.2 million dollars in principle, interest and fines.
Press' share is $209,000, dating back to 1985 when he graduated from the University of Maryland – Baltimore Dental School.
Other Marylanders on the list owe as little as $14,000 or as much as a half-million and change. The records show some have been on the hook for their debt since 1979. It's a concept that frustrates Sarah White, "You're supposed to pay back what you owe."
White is paying and she doesn't make a doctor's salary. She's a public servant, a single mom living on a local police officer's salary. But every month, she says she makes a payment toward the federal loans she took out more than 10 years ago to attend the University of Maryland.
Even when she was hurt in the line of duty as a Montgomery County officer and couldn't work, those checks were still sent. She doesn't see why those on the default list don't have the same commitment, "There are no excuses. You borrowed the money legitimately and honestly and you should be honest and you pay it back."
But the health care providers we looked at had plenty of excuses for why they couldn't pay. And not all of them made the federal default list.
ABC2 News Investigators obtained a separate list of Maryland physicians and dentists who have defaulted on loans through the HEAL program.
With those professionals, Rosenstein and his team have gone to court in an attempt to win judgments to get back the money. And there's a lot of it: an additional $4-million in loans and interest.
The docs who borrowed it aren't considered deadbeats by the government according to Rosenstein because they've made some attempt to pay back at a least a portion of the loan. But that didn't happen until the feds fought to get the money, he says, "For the taxpayers who are lending this money in the first place, they have a right to know that if people have the ability to repay it and don't that the government's going to take appropriate steps to collect it."
And when the government can't collect it takes action much stronger than just a public shaming on a website.
A listing on the default website means doctors and dentists are banned from capitalizing on federal programs like Medicare. Their wages can be seized and so can their tax returns.
We wanted to ask Zachary Press about being excluded, but he wouldn't answer our questions, hiding out of sight. But he's got bigger problems than our camera. In 2012, the state board filed a criminal complaint against Press for practicing without a license.
He was supposed to appear in District Court in northwest Baltimore Thursday to answer those charges, but never showed.
Press' attorney asked the judge in his case not to issue a bench warrant, saying he is concerned about his client's mental health. The judge agreed, giving Press a chance to appear in court again February 20th.