Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has approved new measures to expand the provision of dental health care for medical card holders.
He has also confirmed his commitment to a review of the dental treatment services scheme (DTSS), in order to ensure its future viability.
The scheme provides dental care, free of charge to medical card holders aged 16 and over. These services are provided by independent dental practitioners who have a contract with the HSE.
However, the number of dentists registered to provide treatments under the scheme has been in decline and this decline accelerated during the pandemic.
Among the measures approved by the minister is an increase in the fees payable to contracted dentists for a number of items, including exams and fillings, and the reintroduction of cleaning to the scheme for medical card patients.
Announcing the changes, Minister Donnelly said there will be a “root-and-branch” review of the scheme to align it with the national oral health policy.
“Pending that review, my immediate priority has been to address issues facing medical card patients in accessing treatment,” he said.
“These proposals are designed to address not only issues around services for medical card patients, but also the concerns expressed by dentists about the viability of the DTSS.”
Mr Donnelly added that he hoped as a result of these changes there will be “an increase in the number of dentists offering treatment to medical card patients”.
Reacting to the announcement, the Irish Dental Association said while any investment in the scheme is "long overdue", the changes announced will "do little to address the fundamental issues that have forced dentists to withdraw from the scheme en masse".
Will Rymer, chair of the association's general practitioner committee, said the scheme is "outdated and unfit for purpose".
“By increasing the number of treatments available as per the Minister’s proposal, the Government is unknowingly heaping further burden on an ever decreasing pool of exhausted practitioners and will only serve to further congest dental practices that remain within the scheme,” he said.
“Modernisation, not modification, of the dental scheme for medical card patients is what is required to ensure 1.5 million adults are adequately treated for their oral healthcare needs.”
Fintan Hourihan, chief executive of the IDA, said a new scheme will only succeed if it attracts sufficient numbers of dentists.
"We urgently need a new scheme for a modern Ireland that is properly funded and allows dentists the clinical autonomy to treat medical card patients as they would private patients," he added.
" The Irish Dental Association calls on the Department of Health to commence talks to replace the DTSS scheme as a matter of priority."