California dental students advocate at state Capitol to address workforce shortages, protect patient access

May 1, 2023
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Quick Summary:
The student representatives from California’s seven dental schools arrived at the Capitol to discuss major issues impacting the dental profession and patient care, including four bills CDA is sponsoring to address dental workforce shortages, increase accountability and transparency in dental benefit plans and bring increased awareness to children’s oral health. Hear what three of them had to say about their experience.

For the first time since 2019, California dental students were able to meet in person with legislative staff and have a meet-and-greet with Assemblymember Jim Wood, DDS, at the state Capitol as part of CDA’s Grassroots Advocacy Days.

The student representatives from California’s seven dental schools arrived in Sacramento in late February prepared to discuss major issues impacting the dental profession and patient care, including four bills CDA is sponsoring to address dental workforce shortages, increase accountability and transparency in dental benefit plans and bring increased awareness to children’s oral health.

Zoom can’t replicate ‘the experience of being in the same room as legislators’

The annual event typically takes place in person with CDA coordinating the small-group discussions to allow the students to have in-depth, interactive conversations with lawmakers and their staff. But with the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020, the meetings shifted temporarily to online video conferencing via Zoom.

For returning advocate Isabella Idea, RDH, BSDH, a second-year student at Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, being physically present with the other student delegates and seeing Asm. Wood in person was “priceless.”

“No Zoom meeting or phone call could ever replicate the experience of being in the same room as legislators,” said Idea, who attended Grassroots Advocacy Days virtually last year. “We spent each minute making our words count because these professionals are so far removed from our dental world. It was like trying to find that bridge to connect in a meaningful way, and it was so rewarding when we touched on something everyone could understand.”

Assembly Bill 481 would put more RDAs ‘on deck to help others’

Idea said she felt especially passionate helping legislative staff understand how the shortage of dental staff, especially registered dental assistants, greatly impacts dental offices and why CDA-sponsored Assembly Bill 481 (D-Wendy Carrillo, Los Angeles) would help solve for the staffing crisis. 

“As both a dental student appreciating the value of four-handed dentistry and working as a registered dental hygienist for four years alongside my RDA and DA colleagues, I can really speak to how a team adequately staffed with dental assistants profoundly boosts our efficiency in providing care and boosts the volume of patients we can see,” Idea said.

“Uniquely in our COVID world, I cannot ignore the value of literally having more hands on deck to help others when there is a solution present,” Idea added.

Read more about what AB 481 would accomplish.

‘I am reminded of the reason I decided to pursue a career in dentistry’

Daniel Juarez, a second-year student at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry, is new to CDA’s Grassroots Advocacy Days but has experience advocating in other capacities. Nevertheless, he says Sacramento was a learning experience for him, and he called meeting Asm. Jim Wood “an honor and a privilege.”

“I enjoyed learning more about Dr. Jim Wood’s experience as a dentist and legislator,” Juarez said. “His passion about improving health outcomes through the legislative process resonated with me, and as I reflect on my meet and greet with him, I am reminded of the reason I decided to pursue a career in dentistry.”

Juarez said he was especially pleased to join his UCLA student delegation in discussing and supporting the declaration of a Children’s Dental Health Month in California through CDA-sponsored ACR 10.

“As a first-generation college graduate, I place great value on higher education accessibility,” Juarez said. In his meetings with legislators, he presented some statistics and stressed that for young people to have an opportunity to attend college, they must be physically able to attend school to obtain an education.

“It is very shocking to know that children in California miss about 874,000 days of school each year due to dental problems,” Juarez added.

Children’s Dental Health Month is already an important nationwide tool for raising awareness about the importance of childhood oral health and its role in overall health, with the American Dental Association leading the charge each February.

“If ACR 10 is signed and February is declared Children’s Dental Health Month at the state level, California would have an important new tool for raising awareness and promoting good oral health to children, their guardians and educators to improve children’s health outcomes,” Juarez added. 

Aneet Kaur, a second-year dental student at the University of San Francisco, School of Dentistry and first-time Advocacy Days participant, agreed.

“My dental school has been a torchbearer of ADA’s ‘Give Kids a Smile’ program to provide early care to children,” Kauer said. “With Children’s Dental Health Month, we may have new opportunities to organize dental health camps in schools during February to create awareness.”

Some obstacles in the field of dentistry ‘can only be addressed through policy’

Altogether, the seven student delegations met with 11 legislative offices in addition to the meet and greet with Asm. Wood and discussed two other major legislative priorities for CDA: protecting the recent major health equity and Medi-Cal Dental (Denti-Cal) investments in the state budget and reforming dental benefit plans to establish more patient protections and require rate review and an ERISA notice.

In March, CDA launched a campaign asking California dentists to urge their legislators to vote yes on two CDA-sponsored bills, AB 1048 and AB 952, which would close loopholes in plans that are greatly impacting dental practices and patients. 

“As a registered dental hygienist and future dentist, it is a no-brainer that protecting the previous allocation of the budget toward Medi-Cal Dental and health equity investments should continue to remain even in the face of current budget deficits,” said Idea, who emphasized in her discussions with Dr. Wood and legislative staff that the reimbursement rate increases for enrolled providers and expanded coverage for children and adults has increased access to dental care overall.

“Medi-Cal coverage may be imperfect design, but what is more important to me and what I think CDA emphasizes a lot is that this protective ask sets a precedent,” Idea said. “It normalizes a starting point for increased access to dental care and opens the door for what I hope will be an exploration of a more streamlined clinical paradigm rather than a ‘coupon’-like approach to dental care reimbursement.”

Juarez discussed how a decrease in the budget funding would negatively affect access to care and health outcomes.

“Many patients that we see at our student clinic rely heavily on coverage through Medi-Cal to receive the care that they need,” Juarez said. “I emphasized that removing protections from Medi-Cal can limit access to care for our low-income populations and exacerbate their health conditions.” 

Advocating for needed change is 'one of the best ways we can serve our patients'

Idea, Juarez and Kauer all agreed that grassroots advocacy matters for the dental profession.

Juarez encourages his fellow dental students and other oral health stakeholders to advocate for the profession and oral health. 

“It is vital that we learn more about advocacy and the legislative process to help strengthen organized dentistry throughout our careers,” Juarez said, noting that although dentists have the opportunity to improve health during patient encounters, there will be obstacles in the field of dentistry that can only be addressed through policy.

“Through the legislative process, we can advocate for the protection of Medi-Cal and funding for community-based clinic education rotations,” he said. “Issues like these not only affect patient health but also our ability to receive more clinical experience.”

Idea defines advocacy as not just speaking but also listening.

“It’s representing others whose voices may otherwise not be heard or acknowledged. It starts with increasing awareness, encouraging discussion and inviting different perspectives to solve ongoing issues until they aren’t problems anymore,” she said.

As Kaur put it: “Advocating for needed change really is one of the best ways we can serve our patients.”

Grassroots Advocacy Days took place Feb. 21 for dental student representatives and continue through 2023 for California’s component dental societies. Learn more about CDA’s advocacy activities, including how to get involved in grassroots advocacy. 

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