Delta Dental CEO Kristin Merlo Gets to the Root of Regulations

Delta Dental CEO Kristin Merlo Gets to the Root of Regulations
Kristin Merlo, president & CEO of Delta Dental of Arkansas (Photo provided)
Kristin Merlo became chief of Delta Dental of Arkansas, based in Sherwood, on Sept. 29 after a national search to replace Ed Choate, who is retiring. She has served in senior leadership roles in the Delta Dental system during the last 21 years, most recently as senior vice president and chief operating officer for Delta Dental of Virginia and with Delta Dental of Washington.
Before joining Delta Dental, Merlo worked in various sales, marketing and brand management positions with Eli Lilly & Co. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Virginia and an MBA from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
Established in 1982, Delta Dental of Arkansas is the largest dental and vision insurance provider in the state.

Why is dental health covered separately from the rest of the body?

The short answer is that the delivery of care is much different. While medical care has become increasingly centralized — in large health care systems and hospitals — dental care delivery has remained decentralized. Many dental offices are independent businesses.

Dental care delivery has a much different economic model from medicine. I believe that decentralization is good for patients because your dental provider is more local and accessible. Delta Dental is laser-focused on improving oral health. We have a deep understanding of dental care delivery and a unique relationship with practicing dentists.

You are one of three women CEOs in the Delta Dental system. How is the company identifying talented women leaders and helping them rise in the organization?

I am pleased to report that since my appointment, a fourth woman CEO has been named. As a system, Delta Dental is intentional about identifying and developing women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) talent. The fact that we are independent organizations bound by a common brand provides significant executive opportunities at the local level. Delta Dental member companies are expanding diversity on our independent boards of directors as well.

At Delta Dental of Arkansas, we are a customer-centric organization reliant on the very best talent at every level. Every and all exceptional talent will be developed here.

You have said you see opportunities to transform Delta Dental’s customer experiences. How might you do that?

My goal is to make access to oral health care and its payment simple, convenient and affordable. Health care, including dental care, is burdened with a lot of regulation at the state and federal levels, both in dental care delivery and payment. However, it’s incumbent upon Delta Dental, as the clear market leader, to reduce or remove complexity to improve our customers’ experience and improve access to oral health care.

There is a tremendous opportunity for digital transformation. We will leverage technology to reduce the barriers to accessing individualized dental care, simplify processes and help people better manage their oral health and understand its impact on their overall health.

What’s your strategy to grow Delta Dental?

Everyone wants a beautiful and healthy smile. At Delta Dental, we want to help all people achieve that. We are fortunate to be a not-for-profit social welfare organization; we are not a charity. Our margins are invested in our stakeholders, not distributed to shareholders. We are engaged in several lines of business: commercial group and individual dental and vision benefits; Medicare Advantage with our partner, Allwell; ACA dental; and Medicaid.

And yet, there are many Arkansans who do not have dental insurance. The Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation works with many of them. There are people who have dental insurance but don’t see the dentist on a regular basis. We will leverage “experiments” and ideas from all our lines of business to exploit opportunities to improve access to care in the other lines. I believe there is a lot of upside, and I’m excited to be here at this moment in time.