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Dr. huh?

A state investigator is looking into a local hearing aid provider, but his suspicions could be fueled by a misunderstanding

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A criminal investigator with the California Department of Consumer Affairs is claiming that Advanced Hearing Aid Center received more than $9,000 for providing services it’s not legally allowed to perform. Aaron Marquis, co-owner of the San Luis Obispo-based business, is licensed as a hearing aid dispenser, but in a search warrant authorized May 3, investigator Frank Root alleged that Marquis publicly misrepresented himself as an audiologist. Marquis’s wife and co-owner of the business, Anja Sedar-Marquis, is also named as a suspect.

Through the warrant, Root seized medical records from Marquis’ home and office and gained access to his banking history. He has 120 days to process the information and try to make a case the District Attorney will prosecute. To date, no arrests have been made, and the Advanced Hearing Aid Center continues to operate.

But if Marquis is the supposed villain in this particular tale, identifying victims doesn’t come as easily. No patients ever complained to consumer affairs for poor treatment, unresolved medical complications, or unfair billing. It appears that the only person upset with Marquis’s operation is the anonymous audiologist who first contacted consumer affairs and told Root to investigate the Advanced Hearing Aid Center.

“It was a competitor that started this whole thing by attacking my client’s business,” defense attorney Trevor Creel told New Times. Marquis and his wife refused to comment on the story directly.

Even the organization that gave Marquis the supposedly ill-gotten funds never complained. Root alleged that Marquis used insurance codes related to audiology services to bill a consortium of medical providers known as the Coastal Communities Physician Network (CCPN) upward of $25,000.

In his 2009 application with CCPN, Marquis reportedly described himself as an “audioprosthologist,” a technically accurate but potentially misleading term that caused CCPN to place him on its providers list as an audiologist, a title reserved for licensed doctors. Creel told New Times that it was CCPN’s mistake—not any intentional deception on Marquis’s part—that caused the confusion.

In 2007, the American Academy of Audiology issued a statement denouncing the term “audioprosthology,” claiming that it misleads consumers and should be stricken from use among professionals in the field of hearing care.

It doesn’t help Marquis’s case that he referred to himself as “Dr. Marquis” on all of his paperwork, according to patients. Creel said Marquis does have a doctorate, but admitted it’s not a medical degree. The omission of that detail could lead patients to presume their hearing aids are being tested and fitted by an ear doctor.

As a licensed dispenser, Marquis can perform certain hearing tests that help him fit patients with devices that will best address their particular type of hearing loss. However, only an audiologist can charge for such services or use them to make any kind of diagnosis, according to a representative from the Hearing and Speech Center of Northern California.

Charles Miller bought hearing aids from Marquis and posted a glowing testimonial on Advanced Hearing Aid Center’s website. New Times contacted him to see whether or not he ever saw an actual audiologist for his hearing loss.

“Aaron’s an audiologist. Is he not?” Miller said.

Before doing business with Marquis, Miller purchased hearing aids from two other local dispensers. He described their service as “hit or miss” and generally dissatisfying. He said Marquis put him in a soundproof booth and administered several tests before selling Miller an aid that fit well and greatly improved his hearing. The tests he described were within Marquis’s scope of duties as a dispenser.

“Maybe he didn’t have the right license, but he did a good job for me,” Miller said. “He was the most knowledgeable person I saw.”

Another customer, Jan Wilson, echoed both sentiments: the assumption that Marquis was an audiologist and that he provided excellent service.

“Anyone that’s not straightforward bothers me,” Wilson said. “But will I go back to him? Yeah.”

In the search warrant, Root alleged that CCPN reimbursed Marquis for roughly $9,000 worth of audiology services between February 2009 and October 2010, when CCPN noticed the error and changed his status to that of a hearing aid dispenser. They continue to do business together. No harm; no foul.

After researching Marquis’s ads online, interviewing Marquis’s physician network, and investigating bank records, Root wrote that he believes Marquis violated professional ethics and committed several felonies: crimes ranging from medical fraud and falsifying documents to elder abuse. If the DA presses charges on all counts, potential punishments include $300,000 in fines and up to 10 years in jail.

Root cited ads he found online as evidence that Marquis willfully misrepresented himself. A Google search of “Advanced Hearing Aid Center” turned up results that described Marquis as an audiologist, but Creel said those sites were generated by “spider” software that combs the Internet, including CCPN’s provider list, to create business profiles. Creel said Marquis had nothing to do with them.

“I know that the bit about him advertising as an audiologist is completely untrue,” Creel said.

New Times looked through several years’ worth of Yellow Pages and could only find Advanced Hearing Aid Center listed under “hearing aids,” never in the “audiologist” section.

Whether Marquis’s charges are ultimately filed or not, the accusations have already affected him financially and tarnished his reputation. Patient records were seized before he had a chance to make copies, so he’s had to start entirely new files for returning customers, asking about their medical history and explaining the embarrassing situation to all of their clients.

“Their business has been hit pretty hard,” Creel said. “They’re anxious to get it all over with.”

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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