Dental students become advocates at state Capitol

Two dozen students from California’s six dental schools descended upon the state Capitol over two days in February and March to meet with legislators and discuss issues of pressing importance to the dental profession while gaining insights on the legislative process.

These meetings form the backbone of CDA’s Grassroots Advocacy Days. The program favors small groups of participants to allow for concentrated education and preparation on current policy issues and general grassroots strategy, as well as in-depth, interactive discussions with legislators.

CDA called on its elected student representatives to invite individuals from the general dental student population to participate in the program and join discussions at the Capitol. This new tactic exposes a greater number of dental students to the legislative process and the importance of advocacy work and fosters new relationships between dental professionals and legislators. The end goal is to strengthen organized dentistry’s voice in policymaking.

The advocacy days offered most students their first hands-on experience with the legislative process — and their first tour of the Capitol building — but all of the students arrived with an interest in improving legislative policy as it relates to public health.  

“I was interested in attending because I’m passionate about the access to care issue as it pertains to dentistry and I wanted to be able to speak to those who can influence change and to show them how they can play a role in improving conditions that we see in the field,” said Sogole Tabatabaiepur, a second-year student at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry.

Tabatabaiepur and other UCLA dental students met with Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and assemblymembers Richard Bloom (D- Santa Monica), Matt Dababneh (D-Encino) and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) on March 1 to discuss, among other issues, the use of Proposition 56 funding as the voters intended it to be used. The measure passed easily in the November 2016 General Election.

“We specifically talked about Denti-Cal and Medi-Cal and how they are impacted by Proposition 56, which is the tobacco tax that was recently passed,” Tabatabaiepur said. “We’re hoping that the tobacco tax can now channel the revenue toward supplementing Medi-Cal and Denti-Cal and help us as providers, and future providers, take better care of our patients.” Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2017-18 budget proposal disregards this provision and instead directs these funds to pay for general fund obligations. (See “CDA, CMA proposal honors will of tobacco tax voters.”)

Student groups also discussed the importance of dental plan reporting and accountability, particularly the continued dental loss ratio reporting established by Assembly Bill 1962, as well as Senate Bill 379 (Atkins) — the CDA-sponsored legislation to improve oral health data collection.  

“We discussed the Kindergarten Oral Health Assessment, which allows for the redirection of already collected data on caries rates in children to the state dental director to provide a better understanding of dental disparities among young children in California,” said Asya Marsh, a third-year student at Western University of Health Sciences, College of Dental Medicine. “This data can be used to direct oral health education to schools and connect families with dentists in their community,” she added.

Marsh is confident that advocating at the Capitol makes a difference. “As dental students, we have witnessed the disparities in dental care and we see how difficult it is for patients to receive care in a poorly designed and underfunded public health infrastructure,” she said. “We, as CDA members, can influence the decision-making at the Capitol and that’s why it’s important for us to share our stories … that’s why I’m here.”

Prior to their scheduled meetings, participating students received background on the legislators they were scheduled to meet with. Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry students had an opportunity to meet with, among others, Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who is chair of the State Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee and has a powerful position in deciding how to allocate the Proposition 56 revenue in budget negotiations with the governor.

Students also received an overview of the California Legislature and Electorate and education on the current policy issues they would discuss. They learned about grassroots advocacy strategies, including what is required for effective advocacy: Long-term interaction with legislators, both in their districts and at the Capitol.

Walter Fuentes, a second-year dental student at UCLA School of Dentistry, called it a day of “great exposure to the world of lobbying and the policies surrounding dentistry,” while Marsh said, “It is our duty as dental students and as future health care professionals to advocate for our patients’ health and our profession here at the Capitol.”

Marsh pointed to the passage of Proposition 56 as an example of how grassroots advocacy made a positive change in California health care. “Many students in dental schools approached their classmates and community members and encouraged them to vote for something that was going to be very impactful in California, and the measure passed,” she said. Students from all six schools were instrumental during the early stages of the ballot measure process, helping to collect essential signatures to ensure the proposition qualified to appear on the ballot in November.

Both Marsh and Tabatabaiepur agree that meaningful advocacy work doesn’t end in a day. “I would encourage all dental students to participate in a CDA state Capitol advocacy day and realize the impact they have on legislative decision-making,” said Marsh, noting that she and others plan to “go forth” and share what they’ve learned with their peers on social media, on their personal and school web pages and through other means.

“I would add that in order to encourage others to participate [in advocacy], the only thing that’s required is educating them on the issues and the challenges,” Tabatabaiepur said. “Once people know about these issues and are educated about them, it’s inevitable that they would want to help out as well.”

Grassroots Advocacy Days in Sacramento continue into the summer, followed by district meetings in the second half of the year for component dental societies.

Learn more about CDA’s advocacy work. For more information about Grassroots Advocacy Days, contact Public Affairs Specialist Marissa Allen.

Related Items

Senate Bill 379 (Atkins, San Diego), co-sponsored by CDA, would amend the law to improve both the quantity and quality of the oral health data collected. The statutory updates in the bill will also facilitate the efficient collection of the data by ensuring it is reported to one entity — the Office of Oral Health within the Department of Public Health.

Two weeks before the Proposition 56 tobacco tax went into effect in California, the California Dental Association and California Medical Association teamed up to ensure the additional $2 per pack smokers began paying on April 1 would be used as voters intended the dollars to be used — to increase access to care by boosting the level of payment for health care, services and treatment.

The 2017-18 state budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown calls for using tobacco tax-generated funds from Proposition 56 to offset the state’s current obligations to Medi-Cal rather than provide additional funding for provider reimbursement rates. This proposal disregards the will of the voters and the ballot measure’s provisions.