Despite $2.5M investment, dental therapy program has not yet materialized at Vermont State University, auditor finds

Published: 9/27/2023 9:56:16 AM
Modified: 9/27/2023 9:55:28 AM

After seven years and over $2.5 million invested, plans to establish a dental therapy program at the public Vermont Technical College have not yet come to fruition, an investigation by the Vermont state auditor found.

The program was supposed to educate students to be dental therapists, health care professionals who play a role similar to nurse practitioners, to fill crucial workforce needs across the state.

Instead, the initiative was delayed by years, and nearly $2.7 million in public and private funds failed to produce an operating program.

“The yearslong delay in establishing (Vermont Technical College’s) Dental Therapy Program has several contributing factors, including a lack of consistent administrative support, competing interests within the institution itself, the ongoing reorganization of the Vermont State College System, key staff turnover and the COVID-19 pandemic,” a Friday report from the Vermont state auditor reads.

The report is the latest setback for Vermont State University, or VTSU, an institution created through the merger between Vermont Technical College, Northern Vermont University and Castleton University.

Vermont State University’s member institutions have faced years of declining enrollment, low state support and, more recently, leadership turnover. The creation of VTSU was intended to put the institution on a sustainable path forward.

University leadership has highlighted the role of the trades in the institution’s future. Friday’s report, however, shows that the university has struggled to stand up a key trades program.

VTSU’s dental therapy program, the report said, was expected to be the first in the northeastern United States. Now, “additional delays could enable another state or higher education institution to stand up a program first, giving them a leg up on student recruitment,” the report said.

Sarah Truckle, VTSU’s vice president of business operations, said in an interview that the university is still committed to the initiative.

But, she said, “we certainly acknowledge we’ve had a lot of delays getting the dental therapy program up and running.”

The program’s inception took place in 2016, when the Vermont legislature created the legal framework for the profession of dental therapists.

Similar laws exist in a handful of other states, and functional programs exist in Washington state, Alaska and Minnesota.

Vermont Technical College — not yet folded into VTSU — supported the new law, and after it was passed the college secured funding to hire a director for a new dental therapy program.

Under Vermont’s law, dental therapists would be licensed dental hygienists and would need to complete additional coursework as well. According to a Q&A published by the Pew Charitable Trusts, dental therapists “provide preventive and routine restorative care, including filling cavities, placing temporary crowns and extracting badly diseased or loose teeth.”

But despite a stream of funding from the federal and state government and private foundations — including $75,000 from the Pew Family Foundation, according to the auditor’s report — the program never got off the ground.

University officials never applied for accreditation from the Commission on Dental Accreditation, and in 2022, the director left. The position is still unfilled.

Truckle, the VTSU administrator, attributed the delays to a variety of difficulties.

“We saw some unforeseen obstacles, complications during COVID,” she said. “We had a lot of staff turnover. We’ve made a lot of changes in our grants management process with the transformation that we’ve been going through in the merger into Vermont State University. And then we’ve had a lot of leadership changeover.”

Dental therapy is also a relatively new field, she said, and very few institutions nationally offer instruction in it. VTSU still plans to apply for accreditation and hopes to begin recruiting students by 2027, she said.

“It’s a new program,” she said. “It’s incredibly complex to set up and launch.”

Doug Hoffer, the Vermont state auditor, said that the prospect of a Vermont dental therapy program would be a boon for the state.

“I think I speak for most people when I say that the concept sounds very promising for rural Vermont and other rural parts of this country,” he said.

“So you would have hoped for a quicker turnaround, but that’s not what we got.”

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