The University of Kentucky has agreed to pay a former dental professor $620,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging he was taken off the payroll because he criticized Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to remove dental and vision care as a basic service of the state’s Medicaid program.
Dr. Raynor Mullins, a statewide oral-health leader who had remained on the College of Dentistry payroll after retirement from normal duties, lost his job as an emeritus faculty member, a position that did not have traditional tenure protection.
After depositions had been taken in the case, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Weir ruled in October that it should be decided by a jury trial, calling it “the epic story of academic intrigue and the place of free speech.”
The suit charged that a few days after Bevin made the proposal in June 2016, new dentistry Dean Stephanos Kyrkanides told Mullins that he needed to stay “off radio” on the matter, and “communicated that this direction came from ‘up top’.” It says that Mullins presumed that to mean no radio or television interviews, and that he told Kyrkanides, “I have not received any requests from the media, but I do have serious concerns,” and said he would submit formal comments about it.
The next month, Mullins was among five Kentucky oral-health leaders who filed comments saying that the cost explanation for reducing dental and vision benefits was “fuzzy,” and based on “flawed cost assumptions.” They argued that removing the benefits would cost the state more than it would save, because poor oral health increases “major cost drivers such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” as well as obesity, and would increase wasteful use of emergency rooms.
“According to legal documents, someone from Bevin’s administration called UK officials, who then expressed the administration’s displeasure to Kyrkanides,” Linda Blackford reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. “The person who allegedly called UK has never been identified. When the lawsuit was filed in August, 2017, a Bevin spokeswoman denied the claims that anyone from Bevin’s office had pressured UK.”
The suit claimed that Kyrkanides asked other dental-school leaders and faculty how to terminate Mullins’ appointment as a post-retirement emeritus faculty member, a non-tenured post he had held since 2006; and “notified Dr. Mullins’ colleagues that they could no longer work with Dr. Mullins on new grant-funded projects, in retaliation against Dr. Mullins,” and told them to stop speaking to him “in an effort to ostracize and retaliate against Dr. Mullins for exercise of his First Amendment rights.”
The first named defendant in the suit was Mark Birdwhistell, the UK HealthCare vice president and former state Medicaid director who helped Bevin’s staff draft the proposed changes. It claimed Kyrkanides was acting at the direction of Birdwhistell, who was acting at the behest of Bevin or his agents. The other defendant was “John Doe,” identified only as a member of Bevin’s administration. Birdwhistell was dismissed from the case several months ago.
“Mullins’ colleagues testified that Kyrkanides’ attitude toward Mullins changed,” Blackford reports. “Kyrkanides took Mullins off projects and caused dissension between Mullins and his colleagues. In January, 2017, Mullins was informed that his post-retirement appointment was finished because he had not secured more grant funding to support it. UK spokesman Jay Blanton said Mullins will return to the university although the details are not yet final.”
In a joint statement, UK and Mullins said, “Both parties have reached a settlement and desire to resolve their disputes in a positive manner. Just as important the resolution only serves to strengthen our shared commitment to the University of Kentucky’s mission and goals to improve health in the commonwealth. Oral health and its relationships with overall health and well-bring are critically important issues that need and deserve our full commitment. We will have no further comment on this matter as we are united now in our intent to focus squarely on these shared goals moving forward.”
Written by Al Cross. Cross-posted from Kentucky Health News.
Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.