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How Delta Dental Behaves in the Dark

For years, WSDA member dentists have worried about how Delta Dental’s market dominance impacts their practices and the patients they serve. We now know that negative impacts of that power are being felt in the public arena as well. Read WSDA Executive Director Bracken Killpack's editorial for the Spring Issue of the WSDA News.
For years, WSDA member dentists have worried about how Delta Dental’s market dominance impacts their practices and the patients they serve. We now know that negative impacts of that power are being felt in the public arena as well.

Over the past 18 months, WSDA executed a public records request to obtain and review emails between Delta Dental and a former state employee, Dr. Joel Berg, who previously served as the dean of the University of Washington School of Dentistry (UWSOD) (download high-resolution and low-resolution versions of some of the emails obtained through WSDA's request). Their email exchanges shed light on how Delta Dental furthers its own interests through its “philanthropic” relationships.

The emails demonstrate that the largest donor to our state’s only dental school placed its dean in a “pay for performance” position whereby Delta contributions to UWSOD appear predicated on UWSOD providing benefit to Delta. 

One example of this behavior is the role Delta asked Dr. Berg to play in Delta maintaining its business relationship with one of its largest clients. In late 2015, Delta had the then-dean participate in the company’s sales presentation to maintain its contract to administer dental benefits for Boeing employees. Delta was successful in maintaining the Boeing business.

Conversations between Delta executives and board members captured in the public records request show Delta became “supportive of a major gift” to UWSOD after the former dean was “extremely helpful in the Boeing presentation.” According to an email written by former Delta CEO Jim Dwyer, Dr. Berg had become a “very good partner” after Dwyer and Dr. Berg had a “heart to heart chat.” Delta’s CEO sought to support UWSOD after UWSOD helped Delta.

Employees of Delta Dental and its Arcora Foundation also exerted pressure on the former dean to provide seemingly “neutral” third-party validation of positions or outcomes desired by Delta, including actively lobbying for Delta’s proposal to take over administration of the state’s dental Medicaid program. Utilizing the former dean as its surrogate, Delta delivered its own talking points and opinions through a prominent voice in the dental community. 

Dr. Berg’s actions on behalf of Delta were compensated with an advisory role for Delta Dental’s venture fund, SpringRock (a financial relationship that does not appear to have been disclosed to UW leadership) and also with an informal role as “Senior Advisor” to Delta.

The information described above has been shared with UW leadership and the State Auditor’s Office. We applaud UW for committing to strengthen their internal controls to ensure that inappropriate relationships do not exist, and we have offered to assist them in any way we can in this matter.

As troubling as the information contained in these emails is, it does not answer the important question of whether Delta leverages other community relationships to further its corporate goals. Delta also does business with other state institutions, including the Health Care Authority and the Department of Health. Does it try to leverage those relationships as well?

Similarly, do Delta employees engage in similar activities with non-governmental organizations? What strings are attempted or actually attached to Delta Dental and Arcora Foundation contributions to non-profit groups? 

There’s an old saying that sunshine is the best disinfectant. The unsettling activities uncovered in these emails were exposed because of our state’s strong public disclosure laws on public agencies. One can only wonder what other troubling activities would be uncovered if these same disclosure laws applied more broadly. 

Some of the emails obtained through WSDA's public records request are linked here in both high-resolution and low-resolution versions.
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