Advocacy in Action: How OPEN’s Virtual Hill Day Is Catalyzing Congressional Change

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November 7, 2023

By the numbers, OPEN’s Virtual Hill Day was a great success. There were more than 100 oral health advocates and Oral Health Progress and Equity Network (OPEN) members representing 37 states. Congressional staff from 59 Senate offices and 43 House offices also attended. They had one goal, together, of creating an oral health care system that is equitable, accessible, and affordable.

But the real success, the change, came after the event in mid-September, with action from two senators just a month later.

Screenshot from OPEN Virtual Hill Day
Screenshot from OPEN's Virtual Hill Day

On the heels of Hill Day, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) sent a letter to the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), requesting a plan to expand their oral health grant programs. That plan would expand the agencies’ programs evenly to all states, including an expansion of existing grant programs that would improve access to oral health care for people in need across the US.

Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Jeffrey Merkley (D-OR) also signed the letter and met with OPEN members from their state as part of Hill Day.

Bringing Advocates Together Through OPEN

OPEN is made up of people and organizations from across the US whose goal is to integrate oral health into overall health and make health care equitable, accessible, and affordable for everyone. CareQuest Institute supports the network.

“Our aim was to bring unique and varied stakeholders together to really effect change,” said Bianca Rogers, MBA, a project manager for CareQuest Institute. “Events like this help energize advocates and light the fires we need to continue this challenging and meaningful work.”

Senator Cardin, who referenced the tragic story of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy from Maryland who tragically died after a tooth infection, received the Oral Health Advocate of the Year Award as part of OPEN’s Hill Day. Senator Cardin talked about Driver’s legacy and the fight to expand children’s dental benefits in Maryland.

Senator Cardin also thanked OPEN for its work in expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), under Medicaid, to include a pediatric dental benefit as an essential health service under the Affordable Care Act.

OPEN advocates responded by highlighting three policy changes to senators and representatives that they’d like to see:

  1. The first was a call to action to support the Healthcare Extension and Accessibility for Developmentally Disabled and Underserved Population (HEADs Up) Act (H.R. 3380). Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities face significant disparities in health outcomes and accessing health care, including oral health. The act recognizes individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as a medically underserved population, expanding their access to vital health programs.
  2. The second request to legislators was aimed at broadening dental care services for veterans with chronic conditions, like heart conditions and diabetes. Advocates presented data showing the strong connection between oral health and chronic conditions to explain the need for preventive dental care. They showed how this approach could lead to substantial savings for the Veterans Health Administration and emphasized that investing in dental care could result in healthier lives and reduced medical costs for veterans.
  3. The third request focused on the need for legislators to appropriate funds to support HRSA Oral Health Workforce and CDC Oral Health Cooperative Agreements in every US state and territory. The people in states that already receive this funding have easier access to oral health services, but the grants are only available to a handful of states, leaving many people in many regions without essential oral health services because of inadequate support.

The Critical Work of Advocating for Oral Health

Screenshot from OPEN Virtual Hill Day

The success of OPEN’s Virtual Hill Day and the letter from Senators Cardin and Booker is a clear example of how the power of advocacy and speaking directly with congressional representatives can lead to change.

Kerri Dittrich, a public health dental hygienist at Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department in Nebraska, shared her experience and explained the importance of the planned meetings.

“This was my first opportunity to participate in OPEN Hill Day, and it was such a great experience,” she said. “I was thankful that they allowed me to speak specifically about my areas of oral health advocacy and expertise.”

Not only did personal advocacy efforts empower OPEN members like Dittrich to speak directly to policies impacting their communities, but it also allowed them to bring their views and research to the forefront of legislators’ attention.

“I will definitely be participating in this event in the future,” Dittrich added.

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