During a ride home from work that he’ll never forget, Marc Bernardo, DMD, MPH, opened an email that would change his life. The Moreno Valley dentist learned that he had just been awarded a $300,000 CalHealthCares grant from the California Department of Health Care Services.
“I was overwhelmed with gratitude and humility,” said Dr. Bernardo, who owes $500,000 in student loans. “My main purpose in becoming a dentist was to help people and make a positive difference in their lives. This grant enables me to fulfill this objective by serving my patients no matter their insurance coverage or financial means.”
Bernardo provides care at his family’s private practice and mobile care for bedridden and developmentally disabled patients. He’s among the first recipients of the new grant funded by Proposition 56, a voter-approved tobacco tax that CDA and other health care organizations sponsored in 2016. The grant program awarded $10 million in debt relief to 38 dentists (up to $300,000 each) in exchange for the dentists maintaining a 30% or more Medi-Cal patient caseload for five years.
“It’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Michelle Galeon, DMD, upon learning of her $300,000 award. “My student loan was something that I knew would take a long time to pay off.”
Dr. Galeon provides care at Valley Health Team in Fresno, a clinic where 70% of patients are covered by Medi-Cal. With $450,000 in student loan debt, the grant will allow her to continue serving people who have limited access to care.
“There are a lot of barriers to providing care. Allowing more providers to work in these rural areas makes a big difference in our state,” said Galeon. “I have a passion for helping the underserved. When I go to work every day I feel value in what I do and I feel like I’m making a big difference.”
The grant recipients will provide services to Medi-Cal dental patients in 20 counties across the state. Most awardees are general dentists and nine are specialty providers. They work in varied practice settings, including community clinics or Federally Qualified Health Centers, academic settings, and group and private practices. In addition to dentists, the Department of Health Care Services awarded 240 physicians $57 million in student loan debt relief as part of the Proposition 56 Medi-Cal Physicians and Dentists Loan Repayment Act.
Bernardo, who served as a CDA student representative and TDIC Board student liaison, credits CDA’s grassroots advocacy for educating lawmakers about the importance of tobacco tax funding for the sustainability of community clinics.
“During my second year of dental school, my peers and I joined CDA in speaking with legislators at the state Capitol,” said Bernardo. “Through this experience, I realized how organized dentistry not only advocates for dentists, but also the patients we serve.”
Galeon says she, too, sees the positive impact of Proposition 56. “This proposition is making a big difference in our communities — I see it every day. We’re the only clinic for miles and patients depend on us for their care,” said Galeon.
DHCS is committed to four more rounds of student loan repayment grants. CalHealthCares will accept applications for its next round of awards in January 2020.
For more information, including an application tutorial video and informational webinars, visit calhealthcares.org.