Dentists fail in challenge over free treatment
A GROUP of dentists has failed in its High Court bid to stop the Health Service Executive (HSE) slashing free dental treatment for medical card holders.
The Irish Dental Association said last night that it regreted the court's decision to refuse an application brought by a group of 25 dentists.
They had sought an injunction preventing the HSE from altering their contracts under the medical-card scheme.
Last April, the HSE sent a circular to dentists, telling them that medical card holders -- who had been entitled to free treatment under the Dental Treatment Services Scheme (DTSS) -- would be limited to one free oral examination a year, plus any emergency treatments.
Since then, routine treatments, such as fillings, extractions and denture repairs, are no longer covered.
Fintan Hourihan, chief executive of the Irish Dental Association, said the scheme was now only providing "limited emergency dental treatment" for patients and that this was having a serious impact on the country's 1.6m medical card holders.
He added that the association would be meeting its legal advisers to study the implications of yesterday's High Court ruling.
Speaking after the court hearing, Dr Catherine Skelly -- one of the dentists who brought the case -- said the decision to cut treatment for medical card holders was storing up "big problems" for the future.
Dr Skelly said she and her colleagues will now be looking to the High Court challenge being taken by two other dentists, Dr James Turner from Co Wicklow and Dr Martin Reid from Co Donegal. It is due to be heard in December.
The two men have already been granted interlocutory injunctions, restraining the HSE from unilaterally varying the terms of the DTSS in their cases ahead of the full court hearing.
Dr Skelly said her practice in Clifden, Co Galway, catered for a large number of medical card holders. She earned €302,000 under the DTSS, which accounted for almost two-thirds of her gross income.
"We're at risk of going out of business because we relied very heavily on the scheme," she told the Irish Independent.
Dentists are taking a number of court actions in an effort to reverse the cutbacks.
The 25 dentists are part of a group of almost 60 practitioners who are suing the HSE for breach of contract on the basis that changes to the scheme will devastate their practices.
However, Senior Counsel Mark Connaughton, who appeared for the HSE, told the court that the outcome of the challenge by Dr Turner and Dr Reid would also decide the legal issues for the other cases.
In her ruling, Ms Justice Mary Irvine said that if dentists were forced to close down their practices because of reduced income under the scheme, there was no principle of law that this could not be adequately remedied by an award of damages.
She added that there was also significant doubt in her mind as to the actual financial position of each of the dentists.