Report Blames Vermont Technical College for Delayed Dental Program | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Report Blames Vermont Technical College for Delayed Dental Program


Published September 25, 2023 at 4:16 p.m.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • State Auditor Doug Hoffer
Seven years after state lawmakers instructed Vermont Technical College to create a new training program for mid-level dental providers known as "dental therapists," the college has yet to enroll a single student — and says it likely won’t for several more years.

That’s according to a report released on Monday by Vermont Auditor Doug Hoffer's office, which says the school failed to launch the program despite $2.5 million in public and private investments to date.

The report in part blames Vermont Technical College’s leaders for not supporting the dental therapy program. The college has dragged its feet in seeking accreditation approval, the report says, and has not yet hired someone to replace the program director who quit last summer.

“Despite the substantial spending to date, the lack of any academic program deliverables suggests that even more funding will be needed in order to advance dental therapy,” the report says. “Accountability will have to be built into any future funding to avoid repeating the failures of the last seven years.”

Vermont Technical College merged this summer with three other state colleges to create Vermont State University. In an interview on Monday, Sarah Truckle, the university's vice president of business operations, disputed the characterization of college leaders failing to support the program.

She said the delays were more a symptom of the "incredibly complex" process required in setting up a new program for a new profession. She also pointed to other contributing factors, such as the pandemic, "tremendous" staff turnover and the complicated merger process.

"At this point, we feel like we’re on a path to success and committed to getting the program up and running," Truckle said.

The federal government has identified areas in all but two of Vermont's 14 counties that need more dentists. Even in Chittenden County, finding a tooth doc accepting new patients has become akin to scoring Taylor Swift tickets.
Dental therapists are viewed as a potential solution to this shortage. The rough equivalent of a physician's assistant, they receive less training than dentists but can perform various preventive and routine services, including fillings and extractions.

State lawmakers created a path to licensure for dental therapists in 2016 and identified Vermont Technical College, which supported the move, as the logical training ground. The college hired someone to direct the program in 2017 and the following year received a $1.6 million federal grant to support its development. The grant required a 40 percent match from the state, about $600,000.

Though the 2016 law created a recruitment opportunity for the struggling state college system — there are no dental therapy training programs in the Northeast — the next four years passed without much movement.

Most notably, the college did not submit an application to the national board that accredits dental training programs. In late 2021, the director of the VTC program sought meetings with the college's leaders to talk about the application, the auditor's report says, but both meetings were canceled.

Last summer, college leaders were informed that the application was nearly complete, save for a couple final pieces of the curriculum and some administrative steps, according to the auditor's report.

If they hadn't felt obligated to move quickly before, they had good reason to do so now: The national accreditation board was expected to adopt new rules in August 2022 that the college’s application would not comply with. Failure to submit before that transition risked wasting months of work. The application has still not been submitted, however.

Truckle, of the university, said the curriculum wasn't ready. "We didn’t have what we needed," she said.

They still don't. The dental therapy program director resigned last summer, and the job search has been reopened twice over the past year due to a lack of qualified applicants. Officials recently changed the job description to make it more flexible for practicing dental professionals.

Until a new director comes on board, the university can't approve the final curriculum plan needed for accreditation. They now hope to complete that process by late 2026. 

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