Thursday, 19 January 2023
Public Dental Services: Motion [Private Members]
Cathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
I thank the Minister for his opening statement. I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I thank Deputy Naughten and Ms Cáit Nic Amhlaoibh, our group administrator, who have done most of the legwork in preparing this motion. I would also like to acknowledge two dental colleagues in the Public Gallery, who are very welcome to this debate. I very much like the motion because, like any good motion, it is simple and straightforward. I endorse and support every single word in it.
I support the motion for a number of reasons. First, we all acknowledge that dentistry is generally regarded as the poor relation from a healthcare point of view. It does not have the same status as other medical professions. A lot of the public discourse around health is dominated by the acute hospitals and GPs, and for good reason, but dentistry is also super-important. This motion will go some way towards providing a more level playing field and parity of esteem for the dental profession. Second, we know that dental disease disproportionately affects the poor, the disadvantaged, the people on the margins and these are precisely the people that this Parliament should be reaching out to and assisting. We know that most healthcare problems affect the middle-aged and the elderly, but dental issues primarily affect the youth, the future of the country, and we should be targeting them for that reason. We know that good dental practice can reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes so it is worth investing in it. Third, and most importantly, as my colleagues have already mentioned, prevention is better than cure. I do not think there is any profession for which that phrase is more appropriate than the dental profession. From the point of view of a bang for our buck, dentistry is where it is at from an investment perspective.
The word "crisis" is thrown around a lot. Every place seems to be in crisis these days but dentistry genuinely is, and we know what the problems are. The first is access and the second is staffing. On access, the main problem is cost. We know that it is really expensive to get private dental care. We also know that medical card holders are finding it hard to get access to a dentist. They are the two big issues from a cost perspective. On staffing, every sector is screaming for staff at the moment but the dental sector is different because we actually control the levers. The State has a monopoly on the amount of dentists in the country because we decide how many people we train. Undergraduate training is an area that we must focus on.
As the Minister is aware, the Regional Group comprises very solution-focused people. We know what the problems are and we try to offer, in good faith, constructive solutions. The solutions we would see from an access perspective are all about cost. The costs of private dental care are astronomical but there is a solution. People can get a tax rebate on dental care of about 20% and we would be of the view that this should be increased to 30%. The next budget is less than nine months away and we would be supportive of any proposal that would increase the tax rebate for dental care to 30%. People are still willing to pay 70% of the cost so it would be a very good investment from the State's perspective.
On the DTSS, I acknowledge what the Minister said with regard to the additional supports that have been provided, but the bottom line is that our colleagues in the dental profession are not being reimbursed sufficiently for extractions and fillings. It is unfair to expect private dentists to be out of pocket for providing a service that the State should be providing directly. If additional resources were made available to dentists, that would be hugely appreciated.
On staffing, we are not just talking about dentists but dental hygienists, dental nurses and all of the auxiliary staff. As I said, we do have capacity in our universities to push more people through those training pathways. The CAO points for dentistry are massive, as Deputy Lowry said, which proves that the demand is there, but we need to increase the capacity.
My final point relates to a public awareness campaign. I have not heard or seen advertisements on traditional or social media reminding people of the importance of dental hygiene in a long time. Many people put off looking after their dental hygiene because of Covid-19. We should keep the public informed of its importance and remind them that it is something they need to keep an eye on, for themselves and their children. As Deputy Verona Murphy said earlier, a stitch in time does save nine.
I am hugely supportive of the motion. It makes perfect sense. In the past we could not invest in our dental services because we did not have the money but we had a €5.2 billion surplus last year. Obviously, we should not spend everything and should bank some of that for a rainy day but we do have the means now to invest in our dental services. The only question that remains is whether we have the political will to do so.