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Harris smooths out rift with dentists over how to roll out free dental care for kids

Harris has said free dental care for children will begin to be rolled out from next year

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has been attempting to smooth out a rift with Irish dentists over the government’s new oral health policy.

Simon Harris met with the Irish Dental Association (IDA), the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the Irish Dental Council to discuss the roll out of the new strategy, which has been heavily criticised by some dentists.

Earlier this year, the new scheme of dental care for Irish children under the age of six was announced, as well as packages of care for children from birth to 16 years of age.

At the time, Harris said free dental care for children will begin to be rolled out from next year, and added that dentists would be given investment and resources to roll out the new policy.

However, critics of the plan in the dental sector believe key aspects of the public dental service are now to be privatised, and that this move will have a detrimental effect.

Professor Leo Stassen of the Irish Dental Association criticised the policy at the time. 

“The package is going to detract from the capability to look after children,” he said.

He added that it would result in an “increased need in extraction not just for children but for adults”. 

In addition, Fintan Hourihan, chief executive of the IDA, said earlier this year that the programme will move from a targeted approach where HSE public dental surgeons can target children at key age ranges of development.

Currently, the Public Dental Service (PDS) provides emergency treatment to all children under 16 years of age and routine dental examinations for school children at certain periods.

Under the School Dental Screening scheme, which currently exists, dentists only visit primary schools each year to see children in second, fourth and sixth classes.

Children are examined and given a grade depending on how quickly the child needs treatment. The child is then referred to a local HSE dental clinic to receive treatment.

Under the changes being announced earlier this year, contracted local dental practices will replace the existing Public Dental Service (PDS) school programme.

‘Catastrophic’ plan for patients

Hourihan told the Oireachtas Health Committee in May that not only would the new policy fail, but it would be “catastrophic for patients in lower socio-economic areas with high treatment needs”.

Hourihan told the committee that it is “incomprehensible to our members in both the HSE public dental service and private practice that key aspects of the public dental service are now to be privatised”.

The association, which represents 2,000 dentists nationwide, said it was not consulted on the new oral health policy, despite being the practitioners that will have to roll it out.

New contract discussions

A spokesperson for the minister said that during the meeting with the professionals in the dental sector, Harris has agreed to establish a working group with representatives to ensure the effective roll out of  the Smile agus Sláinte plan, beginning next year.

He also committed to discussions with the practitioners on a new contract in 2020, something Hourihan had said was long overdue.

“The new policy will be transformative and will reform the delivery of oral healthcare in this country. The Minister believes it is essential we continue to engage on these issues and looks forward to meeting with organisations again later this year,” said Harris’ spokesperson.

They said the new dental strategy embraces the same ideals as Sláintecare (the ten-year plan to reform the Irish health service) with the needs of people at the core and the provision of services in the local community paramount.

“This is a transformative oral health policy which requires a programme of change over eight years. The policy will be implemented in phases to give time for people and the profession to adjust and become familiar with the new system of care,” added the spokesperson, stating:

In the first years the focus will be on engaging with the relevant stakeholders i.e. the HSE and dentists to agree on how the new arrangements will be rolled out.
The introduction of packages of care for children under 6 years of age will be prioritised. In addition, there will be a focus on enabling vulnerable adults to access their local dentist as a first point of contact and ensuring that they are referred to the HSE community oral healthcare service or other appropriate service, if required.

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