Yesterday, in the Seanad, I raised the issue of the situation resulting from the closure of Oranmore Orthodontics and its impact on patients and their parents in the area. Unfortunately, Minister Donnelly wasn’t available to attend but Minister of State in the Department of Health, Frank Feighan TD responded with a Departmental response. I am meeting with the Dental Council next Monday and everyone involved is anxious to reach a solution to this very difficult situation.

On 5 August, Oranmore Orthodontics issued a text message to say that the practice was closing. I will not get into the ins and outs of why, but that was development for parents in the area. The practice informed parents that it is no longer practising. Hundreds of children were left high and dry in respect of their dental care. A small number were able to get an orthodontist appointment quickly, but now have to pay extra for this, having previously paid in full for the treatment to the other practice. They do not know whether they will be reimbursed for their full payments. The vast majority of parents have been unable to get anybody to see their children. It seems that everybody is washing their hands of this, including the Dental Council of Ireland, the Dental Complaints Resolution Service and the Department of Health.

As of today, there are still no practical solutions for parents or, more importantly, for children – minors – in Oranmore, Claregalway and the general area. A meeting was held with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, online last week with some parent representatives and Oireachtas Members. It was described in an email by parent representatives who attended as “disappointing”. That is an understatement. The response that we received was extremely disappointing. All we heard at that meeting was that there is no legislation in place in the case of an orthodontist practice closing. There is a serious lack of specialist orthodontists in the country. There is no legislation in place to deal with any orthodontist practice where a nurse or an orthodontist could fall ill or where it could have to close for health reasons or where they pass away. The Minister has indicated that he is unwilling to put emergency legislation in place to support this unprecedented case, stating that legislation takes months to put in place. Yet, as I said, the text message went out on 4 August and here we are on 14 September. More than a month and a half has passed.

A departmental official who attended the meeting said it is acceptable for parents and patients to travel to Clonmel or Dublin every six weeks for a ten-minute appointment. They got no responses from the Dental Council, which said it contacted 30 orthodontists within a 1.5-hour radius of Oranmore. Parents cannot find those 30 orthodontists. They can find four, but they do not know where the other 26 are. The Dental Complaints Resolution Service is refusing to support parents.

The parents are in limbo not knowing how to claim for the additional expenses incurred to continue their children’s care. More importantly, the majority of patients have not secured an orthodontist willing to take on their care and there is no sign of an orthodontist willing to take on these patients any time soon. The Dental Council has advised dentists, although we have to get this in writing, not to take on patients. Some orthodontists who were initially willing to take on patients have suddenly decided they cannot do so or they will not do so on the advice of the Dental Council.

The Minister, it seems, is unwilling or unable to come up with solutions to solve this problem. Officials in the Department have suggested that orthodontists are being sought in Kildare, Cork or Clonmel. Why can the Department not engage with the Dental Council to find a locum to cover this practice while we sort out this mess? This situation is having a major impact on parents and, more importantly, on youngsters and minors. Parents are being left in limbo. Many of them paid out full costs and cannot afford to pay again. They do not know whether they will be reimbursed for the money they have paid.

Deputy Frankie Feighan

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to provide an update on the current situation regarding orthodontics in Oranmore. On 11 August, the Department was informed by the Dental Council that it had successfully applied to the High Court to suspend an orthodontist with a practice in Oranmore, County Galway, from the register of dentists and dental specialists. As the court proceedings are ongoing, the Dental Council is not able to discuss the details of the case due to the in camera court proceedings.

Since this matter was brought to the attention of the Minister, he has been very concerned about the situation and the consequences for patients and families. His primary focus has been the care of affected patients. Officials from the Department have been consulting relevant stakeholders in the dental profession to explore possible solutions, within the confines of the ongoing High Court process.

On 8 September, the Minister met patient representatives and local representatives to listen to their specific concerns and consider possible options. He has been given assurances that the Dental Council and the Orthodontic Society of Ireland are using their influence to encourage dental practitioners to support these patients. The Orthodontic Society of Ireland is advising the public that it is co-ordinating with its members and the appropriate bodies to seek ways to resolve this matter to ensure ongoing care is restored as soon as possible. To support patients in receiving continuity of care, the Dental Council has written to orthodontists located nearest to the practice to seek their co-operation if former patients of the Oranmore practice seek their help.

It is usual in cases where dentists are indisposed abruptly through death or illness that care is absorbed by other dental practices over time. Orthodontic practices are commonly wound down in an orderly fashion and patients continue to receive care in other practices. However, I appreciate that at present parents feel this transfer of care is taking time and are very concerned. In view of this, the officials and the Minister will continue to explore all options available to them to help secure continuity of care for the affected patients of Oranmore Orthodontics.

Senator Seán Kyne

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate he has been provided with the script. It is very brief and provides no answers. It contains statements I do not believe are factually correct. The Minister has been given assurances that the Dental Council and the Orthodontic Society of Ireland are using their influence to encourage dental practitioners to support the patients. Dentists have informed parents the Dental Council advised them not to take on patients from Oranmore Orthodontics. This directly contradicts what the Minister of State has said. The Minister of State said the Dental Council had written to orthodontists located near the practice to seek their co-operation. Parents are being told the exact opposite and that the Dental Council is telling practitioners not to do so. We do not know the reasons for this. It may be a power play. I do not know. I will recount the story of one family.

The daughter’s braces broke and she was in pain with the wires sticking into her jaw. Her parents said no-one would help them so they resorted to a pliers being used to cut the wire to give their daughter some relief. That is worth repeating and is not the only case I have heard where parents’ only solution has been to go and find a pliers in emergencies in Galway. It is therefore time for the Dental Council, the Minister and the Department to step up and sort this out now. As I said, on 4 August, parents were texted that the practice was winding up and on 14 September no solution is coming from the Department.

Deputy Frankie Feighan

I thank the Senator again. The Minister was given assurances that the Dental Council and the Orthodontic Society of Ireland were using their influence to encourage dental practitioners to support these patients. The Senator has said otherwise and I will bring those views back to the Minister. I assure the House that the Department is consulting stakeholders across the dental profession to support the continuity of care for the affected patients in Oranmore. As the case is before the High Court and is subject to in camera proceedings, there is a limit on the information I can provide on behalf of the Minister. The Senator has articulated that situation. It is very worrying and it is a situation we should not be in. Again, I will bring the Senator’s views directly to the Minister and try to get this resolved. I again thank the Senator for raising this very difficult situation, which is one that should not occur. I hope all the stakeholders will redouble their efforts to resolve this.