The head of the Irish Dental Association (IDA) has criticised government plans to extend free dental care to under-sixes while “failing” to invest and recruit extra dentists.
Fintan Hourihan said the proposals in the budget has left the provision of public dental care in crisis.
He has called for an immediate recruitment of extra dentists to cope with what he described as the “ever-lengthening” waiting lists for school screening and dental treatments.
Speaking at the annual IDA seminar for HSE dental surgeons in Portlaoise, Mr Hourihan said that the IDA will ballot for industrial action in the event that the HSE makes unilateral changes to the terms and conditions of HSE dentists.
The Finance Minister announced that free dental care will be rolled out to children under the age of six.
The proposal will not come into effect until September next year.
Mr Hourihan accused the Government of expanding the provision of care for children while failing to “adequately” invest in the role that the public dental health service will have.
The number of dentists employed by the HSE for school screening has dropped by 23% in the last 10 years.
“We have seen documentation confirming that waiting lists of 24 to 30 months now exist for specialist treatments,” he said.
President of the IDA group for HSE surgeons, Dr Grainne Dumbleton, said the availability of staff to provide the targeted public dental health service through the HSE is a concern.
“We have received reports from our representatives across the country that increasing numbers of children are only being offered examination and dental care for the first time at sixth class (the oldest age group), instead of three age groups,” she said.
“This is very worrying for children and vulnerable adults with additional needs, who rely on the care provided directly by the public dental health service and who are at risk of harm as a result of the lack of investment within the salaried service over the past number of years.
“We need to immediately invest in our salaried public dental health service given that in the past decade the number of eligible children has risen by 20% and available staff has decreased by over 20% during the same time frame,” she said.
Mr Hourihan said that IDA members were seriously concerned about the viability of the proposed National Oral Health policy, which seeks to move from a risk-based, targeted public dental service model to a system where children are seen if they attend in independent dental practices.
He added: “A targeted dental service has been in place for over 20 years.
“Members of our Association know from vast experience that children rely on parents to bring them to the dentist and not every parent can prioritise visits to the dentist.
“The targeted approach has an integrated safety net to support parents and children.
“What safety net will be put in place for those children who are not routinely taken to the dentist?
“Evidence from the NHS in England has shown that just half of children entitled to attend the dentist for free actually do so,” he said.
The IDA’s seminar for HSE dentists is currently taking place in Midlands Park Hotel in Portlaoise, with over 150 dentists attending.