A day at the Capitol: Dental students advocate for dentistry and oral health

Students representing California dental schools traveled to Sacramento in February to meet with legislators and their staff, tour the Capitol building and learn how to advocate as part of Grassroots Advocacy Days. CDA hosts the day-long events every year to give students an opportunity to meet with their district representatives to discuss critical issues affecting dentistry.

“This was my first time at the state Capitol and first time speaking with legislators on behalf of any group,” said Kevin Hildebrandt, a first-year dental student at the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry. Hildebrandt, together with three other students, met on Feb. 7 with staff of Assemblymembers David Chiu and Phil Ting and Sen. Scott Wiener. “I was thrilled to be representing our dental students and providing a voice for future dentists,” Hildebrandt added.

Prior to the meetings, which were scheduled in advance, students received background information on the legislators they met with and were educated on current policy issues. This year, students discussed three major priorities for CDA and dentistry: (1) the Coalition to Protect Access to Care’s work to save the Affordable Care Act and improve California’s health care system, (2) support for the additional $70 million for Denti-Cal provider reimbursements tied to Proposition 56 funding as allocated in Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2018-19 budget proposal and (3) promote the recently published California Oral Health Plan, which includes objectives such as building community-clinical linkages, expanding fluoride access and developing programs that promote oral health literacy and healthy habits.

Shelby Maurice, a second-year dental student at Western University College of Dental Medicine, along with 14 students from the four Southern California dental schools, on Feb. 14 attended the Coalition to Protect Access to Care Advocacy Day. CDA in January joined the coalition, which is composed of more than 100,000 California physicians, dentists, nurse practitioners, community clinicians and pharmacists, in an effort to protect the gains California has made under the ACA and oppose Senate Bill 562.

“Our message was that we are all very supportive of increasing access to care and lowering barriers, but in a more stable and sustainable way than outlined in SB 562,” Maurice said. SB 562, the single-payer health care bill, is currently being held in the state Assembly. Maurice added: “It was really inspirational to see all of these members of the health care profession come together and rally to advocate for patients and a better future for all of our professions.”

CDA organizes small-group advocacy days to allow for more concentrated preparation and more in-depth, interactive discussions. CDA’s elected student representatives began participating in 2014, but last year, CDA called on participating representatives to also invite individuals from the general dental student population.

“This approach allows for even more students to learn about the legislative process and why advocacy work matters,” said Robert Hanlon, DMD, CDA Government Affairs Council member. “It also strengthens organized dentistry’s voice in policymaking, as each year we see new relationships formed between state lawmakers and dental students, who are our future dental professionals.”

Mahelet Negash, a fourth-year dental student at Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, said that she and the other students were heard that day. “We were encouraged to provide input and use our voice and explain how we see the future of dentistry and health care in general.”

“It was cool to get my feet on the ground in the Capitol and get to meet Freddie Rodriguez, who is our assemblyman for Pomona, which is where my school is located,” Maurice added.

In a video posted to CDA’s Facebook page that to date has reached 2,255 people, Maurice and Negash spoke about their experience at the Capitol. It even received the attention of CDA President Natasha Lee, DDS, who commented, “Shelby and Mahelet, you make us all so proud of our California dental students!”

At the end of each day, the students were eager to continue their grassroots advocacy and outreach — back at home and in school. 

“It is easy to make your voice heard and to get involved in the future of our profession,” Hildebrandt said. “As students, we will soon be the ones defining our profession and what it will become. Working with legislators ensures our position is known and we can have some influence on the changes that are coming.”

Component dental societies also participate in Grassroots Advocacy Days, with meetings scheduled from March to June at the Capitol.

Learn more about CDA’s Grassroots Advocacy program or contact CDA Public Affairs Specialist Marissa Allen for more information.

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