Nearly 2000 people in desperate need of dental care claim they have been "ripped off" after a company owning a dozen clinics across Auckland went into receivership.
Katherine Campbell is one. The 19-year-old's braces, which her mum paid $6500 for, have been causing excruciating pain.
But after the company's collapse in October, she has been unable to receive any of the follow-up care her mum paid for.
"I feel like somebody has punched me in the jaw ... I need help and they won't give it to me and now we just want our money back but we can't get a refund," Campbell told the Herald on Sunday.
The Papakura teen had been seeing a dentist, who did orthodontic work, at Manukau Smilecare before the company that owned it, Dental Care Group Limited (DCGL), went under.
DCGL also owned seven other Auckland clinics and four mobile dental stations, some with Government-funded district health board contracts to provide care to secondary schools.
All have since been sold and it's understood the purchaser of some of the clinics entered into new contracts with the DHBs, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) receiver John Fisk said.
Fisk confirmed to the Herald on Sunday that 1661 patients who made prepayments before the company went into receivership were owed a total of $770,000 and it was unlikely they would get any refund.
"It's a pretty unfortunate situation for these patients to be in," Fisk said.
He said by law the prepayments were unsecured and would only get paid if there were sufficient funds left in the receivership to pay them.
"The recoveries we are going to get from the assets won't be sufficient to be able to pay any unsecure creditors," Fisk said.
It was up to the companies that bought the clinics to decide if they wanted to continue those patients' care at an agreed price - but they were not legally liable to do so, Fisk said.
Tikipunga Dentalcare Limited bought Manukau Smilecare and now goes under the trade name Dental Planet, which does not employ any orthodontists or dentists that perform orthodontic work, it is understood
Dental Planet's general manager Justin Keshwan said the treatment Smilecare patients required was "beyond the scope of the services Dental Planet offers".
"It is unfortunate Smilecare's patients find themselves in this situation and we are sympathetic to their predicament," he said.
"However, it is not possible for Dental Planet to professionally provide services to some Smilecare patients in a manner which ensures the best outcomes for them."
Dental Planet contacted PwC, who informed them Smilecare patients should contact them directly for any treatment they have pre-paid to Smilecare, Keshwan said.
But the half dozen affected families the Herald on Sunday spoke to said they had been refused care by the new companies.
Campbell said initially her old dentist referred her to Dental Planet but then she was sent a text, seen by the Herald on Sunday, saying: "Unfortunately, we are cancelling your appointment for Wednesday as Dr [X] will not be continuing your ortho treatment. It is a difficult case so you will be referred to your original dentist."
The original dentist is now based more than an hour away in Glen Eden and would require additional payments as he now works for a different company.
"It's shocking. We've paid all this money and we just want the braces taken off but they can't do that and now we have to go somewhere else and pay more," Campbell's mum Deanna Eagles said.
Sara Meyer, 30, got the same text from Dental Planet. She paid a $1600 deposit and set up a payment plan, which was a further $5000.
"The communication has been terrible," she said.
Meyer had been seeing an dentist, who performed orthodontic work, for monthly check-ups since November but was told her dentist had no knowledge the company had gone into receivership.
"I was told there would be a new orthodontist taking over the case in the new year. I have not had any further appointments with them except for one to replace a broken bracket and to assess the case for referral to the new orthodontist. Then a couple of weeks ago, I received a text cancelling my next appointment and all further treatment."
She said she couldn't even remember her old dentist's last name and the text provided no information.
"Sometime later I received an email as a summary of my account with them and confirming that they could no longer treat my case. On further inquiry I was told that if I were to go back to the original [dentist], I would have to pay again as my contract was with Smilecare, not him. These costs were unspecified," Meyer said.
She said when she asked about a refund, she was told her contract and financial agreement was with Smilecare, and because the company had gone into receivership, Dental Planet, as the purchasing owner, was neither liable nor obligated to complete treatment.
"Just so disappointing that in a year when nearly everyone is struggling with the after-effects of Covid etc that so many of us have been ripped off like this."
A Health and Disability Commission (HDC) spokeswoman said it couldn't take action on complaints of this nature as it couldn't compel providers to refund a payment or provide compensation.
"You may wish to contact the New Zealand Dental Association who can consider matters of compensation through their disputes resolution process," the spokeswoman said.
New Zealand Dental Association, the body that acts for dentists across the country, declined to comment when approached by the Herald on Sunday.
A spokeswoman for the Commerce Commission said it had not received any complaints related to Manukau Smilecare and could not comment on specific conduct that had not investigated.