Business Editor's Notebook: Northeast Delta Dental weathered pandemic because it was prepared

·4 min read

Jan. 2—Most of us remember the moment we realized the COVID-19 pandemic was about to invade our lives. The fast-moving and deadly virus was no longer the rumbling of a distant train but one that was barreling down the tracks in our direction.

For Northeast Delta Dental CEO Tom Raffio, that moment came March 11, 2020, when he was preparing to watch an NBA game on TV. A Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the postponement of the team's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

By the day's end, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made the call to suspend the season.

Just three days before, Raffio had been watching the Boston Celtics at TD Garden with 19,000 other fans, "who were all screaming, sharing popcorn, and not wearing masks."

Raffio uses that story in the second section of "Prepare for Crisis — Plan to Thrive," a book that chronicles how his nonprofit dental insurance company weathered the pandemic.

He and co-author Diane Schmalensee, a Boston-based organizational consultant, offer examples of how Northeast Delta Dental responded to the crisis to underscore the company's commitment to the Malcolm Baldridge principles of management. Baldridge, who served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 1981 to 1987, was considered a leader in quality management.

The first third of the 148-page book explains the company's mission and core values, presenting evidence that its success working through the pandemic was due to the best practices it already was employing.

Northeast Delta Dental's core values — communication, teamwork, quality and integrity — guided its response to the pandemic, the authors say.

That response targeted stakeholders, including dentists, patients, insurance brokers and nonprofits.

Over its three-state region, Northeast Delta Dental and its foundation contributed $27 million to relief efforts around the state, including nearly $19 million in reduced or returned premiums. It also donated $500,000 to nonprofits, including $400,000 to those focused on oral health.

"We had planned for 10 years for a crisis. So we had built up our reserves so we could give back to the community and still stay strong," Raffio said during an interview via Zoom. "Obviously if you've built up your reserves, you're in a much better position to give back $27 million."

Northeast Delta Dental, which operates in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, closed its offices but started work on procedures to enable dentists to see patients, including providing dentists with masks and other protective gear.

"We first made sure our employees were safe, they got the extra paid time off and that they could work from home," Raffio said. "Then we turned our attention to the dentists, who were suffering because they couldn't see patients except for emergencies. We gave them $7 million in grants."

One of the company's most important missions was working with the state government to secure a path for dental offices to resume business.

"We were working with other stakeholders on the processes with the governor's reopening task force so that dentists could reopen, which they did in New Hampshire on May 11 (2020.)," Raffio said. "It was earlier than just about any state in the country."

"I was always confident that dentists would know what they're doing because they have been dealing with infection control and HIV since the '80s and '90s. But of course this added a whole new layer."

The company used its marketing and buying power to supply dentists with personal protection equipment. In 2020 and the first half of 2021, Northeast Delta Dental shipped more than 113,000 KN95 and N95 surgical masks, 9,000 reusable gowns, and 3,200 boxes of nitrile gloves.

"People forget how scary it was in March and April of 2020. You couldn't get personal protection equipment," Raffio said.

Northeast Delta Dental worked with SoClean — a Peterborough company that is one of its dental clients — to buy the masks.

"We bought 110,000 KN95 masks, and we literally distributed them to all of the dentists in the state," Raffio said.

The company's overall mission has been to ensure the survival of the systems and communities that enable it to stay in business.

"There's a logical flow to it," Raffio said. "Keep your employees safe. Make sure dentists are up and running. Make sure employers don't drop their dental coverage. Make sure nonprofits are still whole. And make sure individuals can still go to the dentist."

Mike Cote is senior editor for news and business. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7724.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not represent the views and opinions of the sponsor, its members and affiliates.

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