The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported the dubious distinction of the first dentist to reach the $1 million dollar figure for student loan debt. That recognition goes to Mike Meru, DDS, MS, a recent graduate of the specialty program for orthodontics at the University of Southern California. Today, Meru works for a large chain dental service organization (DSO) in Utah, where he serves five dental clinics.
The WSJ piece detailed how Meru’s student loan debt escalated in principal, because for long stretches of time, including the present day, he says he wasn’t able to even fully service interest payments. The article questioned the wisdom of government backed student loans allowing this degree of debt to accrue. Costs for education far outpaced inflation. Graduate degree education loans have interest rates far in excess of United States Treasury rates. In fact, there is little actuarial reality that the loan will ever be paid off.
That report was very quickly followed by another by Tim Rostan, managing editor for MarketWatch. Melissa Meru, Mike’s wife, is quoted: “If you thought about it every single day, you’d have a nervous breakdown.” Yet Rostan also focused on how little sympathy the public felt for Dr. Meru’s situation. His article extracted specific quotes from social media:
“So he was charging, what, all of his living expenses for a decade? My pity meter is sadly broken.”
“How utterly ridiculous to borrow that much money and then whine about having to pay it back.”
“This is entirely their fault.”
Both reports failed to address specific areas of significance to the public interest. Except in cases of educational degrees impacting national security, should the government even be in the student loan business? Why allow the dental education-industrial complex to continue to pump out excessive dental graduates, when problematic “access to care” is largely a myth?
One can’t blame the public for its lack of empathy for indebted professionals, when the public through its tax dollars subsidize the troubled and failing student loan industry. However, the public would be wise to consider the risk to its welfare when healthcare professionals are economically forced to work in debt bondage.
Healthcare corporations employing severely indebted doctors are not obligated to act in patients’ interests. Patient welfare is the responsibility of compromised doctors, who provide patient care under disturbingly conflicted interests.
The $1 million mark for dental student loan debt is a very troubling milestone. High student debt is simultaneously a millstone around the necks doctors and the dental profession. Such a weighted anchor could easily pull down the public’s trust in dentistry.
Yes, there are groups that benefit from expansion of the dental education-industrial complex. Existing educational programs are expanded and new ones generated. Corporate healthcare requires replacements for the continual turnover in its labor force of doctors. The “access to care” industry is better able to proffer its dogma of free healthcare for all, when debt-choked doctors scramble to find positions working for public health debt reduction clinics.
Once again, market forces funding dental education have been supplanted by special interest groups and well-intended but dangerous government market manipulation. The $1 million milestone ideally should be a wakeup call, not a toxic millstone.
Dr. Davis practices general dentistry in Santa Fe, NM. He assists as an expert witness in dental fraud and malpractice legal cases. He currently chairs the Santa Fe District Dental Society Peer-Review Committee and serves as a state dental association member to its house of delegates. He extensively writes and lectures on related matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or smilesofsantafe.com.