The University of Washington will close the building that houses its Center for Pediatric Dentistry as part of a major overhaul of how the School of Dentistry does business.
The University of Washington plans to close the building in Magnuson Park that houses its Center for Pediatric Dentistry as part of an attempt to rein in costs at the dental school, which is “hemorrhaging money,” as one dental student put it.
The school has accumulated a $36 million deficit, and if it does not act immediately, that will grow by $10 million to $16 million over the next fiscal year, Provost Jerry Baldasty said during a Board of Regents meeting Thursday.
However, one idea to reduce the deficit — shutting down or suspending new admissions for some of the residency program for dental students who want to specialize in areas like oral and maxillofacial radiology — got a thumbs-down from 43 members of the state Legislature. The lawmakers sent a letter to Baldasty last week urging him not to take what they called a drastic measure.
The UW dental school is considered one of the top five dental schools in the country, and is the only one in Washington.
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The school’s financial problems first came to light in 2015, when the regents learned the school had a deficit of $29 million. At least some of the money woes have been created by the school’s role as a kind of safety net, providing dental work to low-income patients on Medicaid as part of its teaching mission.
Because Medicaid reimbursements do not fully cover the cost of care, as the volume of Medicaid patients seeking out the dental school increased, so did the deficit.
The regents board in 2016 passed a financial plan that was supposed to solve the problem by bringing in more patients who had private insurance, or paid for the full cost of their care. But that plan hasn’t attracted enough full-paying patients, and the deficit has only grown since then.
Late last month, the dental school’s dean, Joel Berg, resigned. In an email Baldasty wrote to staffers, he said Berg believed it would be best for the school “to have fresh leadership to resolve its urgent financial challenges.”
Earlier in the year, the state’s Executive Ethics Board found reasonable cause to believe Berg violated the state’s Ethics in Public Service Act for using public resources for private gain — for example, using his UW email address 468 times for work that was not part of his job as dean. However, UW officials said that finding did not play a factor in the resignation.
James Johnson, professor and chair of endodontics, has been appointed interim dean. On Thursday, Johnson said patients and staff who use or work at the Center for Pediatric Dentistry will move to the Magnuson Health Sciences Center, connected to the UW Medical Center building on Northeast Pacific Street. As part of that move, there could be some staff cuts, he said. He did not know how quickly that will happen.
The pediatric center opened in Magnuson Park in September 2010 after an extensive remodel of a historic building there, and was a signature project for Berg, a pediatric dentist. When the deficit first came to light, faculty members critical of Berg said the center was the main reason for the school’s woes because its financial plan was based on faulty projections that were never publicly vetted.
It’s not clear yet how much the UW will save by moving the center to its main campus.
University officials say they have identified several ways to cut costs, including cutting supplemental pay that some faculty members receive, and eliminating three associate- dean positions, which together will save about $600,000 a year.
The school has also been approved to receive a Medicaid-funded supplemental health-care payment for some patients, which could bring in up to $2.5 million extra a year.
Baldasty had also announced plans to eliminate or suspend admissions for some of the student-residency programs, but Johnson — and the state legislators, led by Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard — asked him to rescind that decision, and on Thursday, he said he would do so. Johnson said the decision buys him about six months to examine whether closing the programs makes sense.
The dental school has 377 students enrolled this quarter, most of whom are Washington residents. Of that number, 273 are studying for their DDS — a four-year program that prepares them to work as dentists, after they have passed accrediting exams. Another 87 students are doing residencies — additional study that prepares them to specialize in such areas as orthodontics, oral surgery and pediatric dentistry, to name a few. And 15 are working on masters or Ph.D. degrees.
More than a dozen dental residents came to make their case to the regents during a meeting Wednesday night, and also on Thursday, when the board met at UW Tacoma.
“We felt like a lot of these decisions were being made by people who were not dentists, and didn’t understand the impact it would have,” said Jacqueline Wong, an oral-medicine resident.
On Thursday, Johnson said the school was in no danger of shutting its doors. “We’re not going to close,” he said. “But we’ve got to control costs — that’s the bottom line.”
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 9, 2017, was corrected Nov. 10, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the proposed closures to residency programs would have affected all of the residencies offered by the school.