UCSF Joins Forces with Dental Students Across the Nation

Writer
School of Dentistry

“If not you, then who? If not now, then when?”

This April, seven UCSF dental students had the opportunity to attend the American Student Dental Association’s National Dental Student Lobby Day in Washington, DC. Lobby Day is an annual event where dental schools from all over the United States send representatives to lobby for legislation in favor of enhancing dentistry, protecting students, aiding patients, and much more. Our goal is to meet with members of Congress in order to obtain votes or co-sponsorships on legislation with a positive impact on dentistry. ASDA selects 2-3 bills for the agenda each year, and representatives can decide which bills to advocate.

This year, ASDA selected the Action for Dental Health Act 2015 HR539 and the Student Loan Refinancing Act HR649. Here is a brief breakdown of the major talking points we referred to during our appointments.

Action for Dental Health Act

  • Allows more organizations to qualify for CDC oral health grants in order to improve oral health education and dental disease prevention.
  • No additional burden to taxpayers (grant money is not being increased)
  • Allow initiatives with the greatest impact in communities with dental access disparities to receive support. These include: Give Kids A Smile, Missions of Mercy (both treat hundreds of thousands of patients in tens of millions of dollars in free care that they would not have received otherwise, both currently privately funded).
  • Reduce the number of emergency visits and burden on the health system (these visits also do nothing to treat dental disease and patients will continue to cycle back to the ER).
  • Still a competitive grant – not reallocating money.
  • Improves quality of care by opening competition to more efficiently functioning organizations (statistics included)

Student Loan Refinancing Act

  • Allows students to refinance federal loans as many times as they wish.
  • Allows new dentists (actually all students) to refinance federal Direct Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans anytime (this means you can pay back your loans at lower interests rates if available).
  • Dental students have an average of $247,437 in debt from dental school alone (for those with debt) – the highest of any professional school, and most students receive loans.
  • Dental students have the lowest rate of default on their loans.
  • Reduced student loan burden allows the opportunity for a greater diversity of students to attend dental school which statistics have proven results in increased access to care. This lessened burden also allows students to accept positions in those communities versus higher paying corporate positions.
  • Refinancing is only used when the economy is doing well and interest rates lower, so should not have a significant detriment to national finances.

So, how did we prepare to win over our representatives? The preparation actually begins months prior to the conference. First, the UCSF ASDA Legislative Liaison recruits applicants for Lobby Day and selects the number of representatives based on the subsidies we receive from our supporting organizations.

Then, we meet periodically to discuss logistics, strategies for lobbying, team-building, and tips for scheduling appointments with our assigned representatives. Setting appointments proved more difficult than previous years. While we were selected to represent all of the Northern California dental community, some representatives were resistant to meeting with a student who was not a constituent in their district despite the fact that these representatives did have constituents at the UCSF School of Dentistry, alumni from our school, and many of our students may be providing for patients in their districts in the future. Many of us also fundraised to meet the student contribution for the trip – only $200 (including flight, hotel, and conference fees)!

The conference day schedule was intense and left us well-prepared for our appointments the following day. We ran an 8AM – 4PM schedule including lessons on lobbying, inspiration for our common goals, information on the bills, practice lobbying, planning logistics for moving around the capitol, confirming appointments, and meeting new people! A good portion of the day was hearing speakers give us tips on how to lobby. They were legislative aids and experienced lobbyists and all had valuable lessons for us.

How to Lobby

  • ASK for co-sponsorship (their vote) on your bills. They want you to leave feeling good about the meeting, but without having to actually promise to do anything. Make your intentions explicit, so their response is equally clear.
  • Know your stuff, especially the information packets you give to them. They may test you or ask specific questions on the bill, and you should be able to answer to show that you are vested in the bill and an intelligent representative of the dental community. In addition, know the current co-sponsors. Some representatives were much happier to be on board when they saw who else was already supporting the bills.
  • At the same time, it is alright if you do not know everything. Do not make up answers. This also gives you the opportunity to follow up with their offices and confirm their stance on the bills.
  • Use specific and personal examples. You are giving them the information on the bill, but your personal story will tell them why that information is relevant. Why should they care? In addition, many of the legislative aides are right out of college and similar in age with us, so they may be able to relate more with us on a personal level.
  • Do not get distracted. Again, they do not want to have to promise you anything, so they will try to distract you into casual conversation. Always find a way to bring it back to your purpose for being there.
  • If they give you a co-sponsorship, stop talking! You do not want to talk yourself out of their support.
  • Follow up! If you did not get the co-sponsorship, follow up to remind them that you are still waiting for their support. If you did get the co-sponsorship, remember to thank them. Follow up more than once!

Finally, on Lobby Day, our work came to fruition. All 400+ dental students rode over to the capitol together, and dispersed into the House Office Buildings. The UCSF dental students huddled to go over final reminders, then dispersed and huddled again throughout the day to discuss good and bad points about each appointment. It was usually very difficult to obtain appointments with the congressional representatives themselves, but our group was actually extremely successful relative to other schools. While every other school we talked to only met with representatives, UCSF was fortunate enough to meet with four actual representatives! Two to three students attended each meeting and they usually met with the representative and his/her legislative aide, or multiple aides.

The results of the appointment varied, but we are able to share that many of our representatives gave our bills co-sponsorships! You can see the representatives we met with and some of the co-sponsorships captioned in our pictures (below/above/left/right). In addition to success, there were also barriers. The Action for Dental Health Act proved difficult because some representatives were concerned about other organizations losing that grant money. We tried to reassure them that this was not a reallocation, but an opportunity for the public to receive the best care instead of simply confining the funds to groups historically allowed access.

In addition, since it was still a competitive grant, if those groups could still prove themselves more efficient, they would still receive the money. The Student Loan Refinancing Act of 2015 proved difficult because there are so many options for improving student loan burden. Almost every congressperson sympathizes with the exorbitant expense of our education, but each member has their own idea of how this problem should be solved. It was described as, “picking your favorite child.” You love what each bill is trying to do, but how do you pick just one? We advocated for this bill because it was the most reasonable, obtaining bipartisan co-sponsorship, and would only be used if the economy was doing well. Overall, UCSF representatives obtained much needed support for these bills and left a professional, intelligent, and passionate impression on all the representatives we met.

And… we were still allowed to have fun! That weekend, we were able to attend the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC, visit the national mall, and even travel to other states to meet up with friends and family. We had a blast and could not have asked for a greater group of people with him to travel and lobby.

So, why did this trip matter to the dental profession? First, strength in numbers! When over 400 students are representing over 50 schools, the entire dental profession, and all our patients, that’s difficult to ignore. We also have very consistent, personal relationships with our patients who are constituents of these representatives. It is also important for our patients. If we do not fight to expand their access to care and fight to allow us to go to under-served populations, who will?

In addition, as health professionals in the field, we also know best how to solve these problems because we have tangible experience in solving these issues throughout our communities. We also do this for our dental peers and future colleagues. Dentists and specialists have dedicated their lives to helping others, and we want to give them the voice and help they deserve. Finally, if we do not do it, who will? Many times in facing administration, professors, the UC system, students feel they do not truly have a voice. However, in this case, we may have the most powerful voice of all. We are the future of America’s health, and we will be the future doctors counseling thousands of patients. That is a powerful voice, and UCSF can be proud that our School of Dentistry representatives have used that voice to advocate for all of us.