Review-Journal investigation chronicles allegations against dental board

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

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Photo by Jan van Broekhoven via Flickr

Over recent years, the Nevada Board of Dental Examiners has weathered plenty of criticism. Two governors have singled out the professional licensing board for scrutiny. State audits, including one released in June, have raised troubling questions about accountability and ethical lapses by the dental board, which is funded by professional licensing fees and charged with practitioner oversight and the protection of patients across the state.

Along the way, an ongoing feud between the dental board and the Las Vegas Dental Association kept tensions simmering. Then, a five-month investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal helped bring the dental board’s troubles to a boiling point.

The six-part series of stories published in October chronicled allegations of mishandled patient complaints, lax professional oversight, conflicts of interest, mismanagement and violations of the open public meetings act.

Since the publication of the series, three members accused of ethical lapses have resigned the 11-member board. At the November meeting of the state’s audit committee, Governor Steve Sisolak announced that he would not reappoint three more. The dental board’s executive director and general counsel have been terminated.

Sisolak said “it has become very clear, there’s a pattern displaying a lack of oversight and accountability,” the Review-Journal reported in a Nov. 7 follow-up to the series.

The governor has pledged to address the troubles with the dental board, one of 31 semi-independent licensing boards that serve in the state.

“I am not interested in any more Band-Aid solutions for the state of Nevada,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

The problems with the board have been long-running and widespread, according to the Review-Journal’s project, “Painful Mistakes,” by reporter Arthur Kane. Among the series’ conclusions: the board has repeatedly failed to adequately discipline dentists accused of injuring patients.

“More than 900 complaints have been filed since 2013, but the number of sanctions issued by the board has plunged even as grievances have increased,” Kane wrote. “All but a handful of complaints were dismissed or settled with corrective actions that allowed dentists to continue practicing while undergoing additional training and partially repaying patients.”

The stories of patients who said that substandard care had left them suffering and burdened by the costs of having faulty procedures redone were featured in the series.

“I was really messed up,” Las Vegas patient Ray Galaza told the newspaper.

The project also explored allegations of conflicts of interest, self-dealing and financial mismanagement raised against the board. Some of the concerns originated with the Las Vegas Dental Association, a state professional organization that has been embroiled in a long fight with the dental board, the newspaper reported.

“Many of the issues the LVDA uncovered raise legitimate questions about ethical conflicts and how money is spent, but some of the association’s accusations are impossible to prove or are demonstratively false,” Kane noted in the series.

In the course of his months of reporting for the series, none of the dental board members returned repeated calls seeking comment, Kane wrote. Board staff refused his requests for indepth interviews.

Since the project was published, the dental board drama has continued to unfold, the newspaper has reported.

The dental board’s then-executive director, Debra Shaffer-Kugel emailed an anonymous letter to the Review-Journal and state officials charging that Sisolak, a Democrat, and his staff had conflicts of interest in their relationship with board critics, referring to the Las Vegas Dental Association. Yet the audits of the agency were started by Republicans during a previous administration, the Review Journal noted.

Sisolak and state Attorney General Aaron Ford called Shaffer-Kugel’s actions “reprehensible.”

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