A new National Oral Health Policy, which promises free dental care to all children up to the age of 16, has been published.
Currently, children up to the age of 16 can access free emergency dental care in HSE dental clinics. However, dental screening by a dentist only takes place three times, when the child is in 2nd, 4th and 6th class of primary school.
Furthermore, due to backlogs in the system, many children are late receiving these appointments, with some not being seen for the first time until they are already in 5th or 6th class.
Currently, around 84,000 children are awaiting a public dental assessment.
Under the new policy, Smile Agus Slainte, all children up to the age of 16 will receive eight oral healthcare packages, which will include examinations, assessments, prevention interventions and referral as appropriate.
These packages will be provided by dentists contracted by the HSE. Parents and guardians will be able to choose and change their child's dentist, should they wish to do so, following the delivery of each package.
The first package will be available to children aged up to two years, while packages two and three will be available to children aged between two and six years.
Packages four, five and six will be available to children aged between six and 12 years, while packages seven and eight will be for those aged between 12 and 16 years.
As part of the new policy, oral healthcare packages will also be provided to medical card holders over the age of 16, and there will be a major focus on improving services for all vulnerable groups, such as those in nursing homes.
Speaking at the launch of the new policy, the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, said that it ‘provides the groundwork to transform oral health services' over the coming years.
Meanwhile, according to Dr Dympna Kavanagh, chief dental officer at the Department of Health, this is a ‘comprehensive evidence-based policy which has been informed by extensive research and deliberations of oral healthcare professionals'.
"For that reason I expect that it will be positively received by the dental community because it will not only facilitate better oral healthcare for everyone, but will also support the continued professional development of the sector," she commented.
However, according to the Irish Dental Association (IDA), its members were not consulted in any meaningful way way or involved in the policy's formulation. It insisted that the policy will be judged on what it delivers, not what it promises.
"Over the last decade, the Government has slashed spending on oral health programmes, taking close to €1 billion out of the system. The proposed reforms will necessitate huge investment and resources by the State, so it's essential that sufficient, ringfenced funding is set aside.
"It's all very well to promise free dental care to the under-6s and to say you are going to extend it to all children under 16, but delivering on that promise is another matter entirely," commented IDA president, Kieran O'Connor.
The Department of Health is proposing a phased implementation of Smile agus Sláinte over the period 2019-2026. The Economic and Social Research Institute has estimated that the oral healthcare packages approach contained in the policy will cost approximately €80 million.
The new policy can be viewed here
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