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Empire building

In “order to achieve an adequate level of oral health care, the state of Nevada should build a college of dental science.”

With those words nearly nine years ago, a consultant paid $30,000 by taxpayers gave higher education officials the ammunition they needed to seek legislative support for a public dental school at UNLV.

The recommendation, like so much public policy, was based on ratios. In 1997, Nevada had licensed only 40 new dentists, giving the state a total of 704, or one dentist for every 2,418 residents. Bureaucratic types, concerned that this figure ranked 46th among the states, said Nevada needed to have one dentist for every 1,631 people.

At the time, dental schools around the United States were closing for two reasons: the high cost of running them and an adequate national supply of dentists. Practicing Nevada dentists warned that a public college wasn’t needed at all.

“I’m not sure there is a shortage (of dentists) here,” said Dr. Ted Twesme, president of the Nevada Board of Dental Examiners, when the idea for UNLV’s School of Dental Medicine first started gaining traction. “We’ve been granting licenses every year.”

Taxpayers were already subsidizing the tuition of a handful of Nevada dental students attending out-of-state schools, provided they agreed to return home to practice. Under this cost-effective program, nearly $150,000 in grants were awarded to 10 Nevadans in 1998.

No matter. The market couldn’t be trusted to move more dentists to a state supposedly starved for them. Only another expansion of government could solve the crisis.

Then-state Sen. Ray Rawson, R-Las Vegas, a dentist employed by the university system who led the charge for the college’s creation, promised it would pay for itself through student tuition payments and clinical services for the poor.

But over the next four years, the Legislature and Board of Regents ponied up more than $30 million to build a dental college campus, purchase equipment, hire faculty and staff and recruit a student body.

Today, with hundreds of students and the recent graduation of its second class, the dental school remains among UNLV’s most costly programs, requiring about $8 million per year in state funding to keep it running.

But at least all those new dentists are stepping into open positions in Nevada, helping the state boost its horrendous dentist-to-resident ratio and climb out of the basement of another rankings list. Right?

Actually, the Review-Journal’s Lawrence Mower reported Monday that of UNLV’s 71 newest School of Dental Medicine graduates, only 27 have obtained Nevada licenses, and none are finding it easy to hang a shingle here. More than half the graduates have left the state.

Meanwhile, hundreds of dentists from outside Nevada have moved here since 2006, when the Board of Dental Examiners began accepting results from a regional test, rather than its own exam, in awarding licenses. More than 300 new licenses were granted in 2006 alone, bringing the current number of licensed dentists in Nevada to more than 1,700 — or about one for every 1,631 people, the magic goal used to justify the creation of UNLV’s dental school.

After years of warning signs, it’s now official: UNLV’s School of Dental Medicine was conceived, founded and funded on a series of exaggerated needs and bogus promises. This was never about averting a public health crisis — it was about appeasing a powerful lawmaker and expanding the UNLV empire.

When the 2009 Legislature convenes, and lawmakers begin their biennial whining about a lack of spending money, they can begin their search for potential budget cuts with this boondoggle.

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