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Conflicting legal advice calls for rethink in handling dentists' Medicare breaches

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Mark Metherell is health correspondent

View more articles from Mark Metherell

OFFICIAL demands on 65 dentists to repay more than $21 million for Medicare breaches have turned into a bureaucratic quagmire, with the federal government revealing it has received contradictory legal advice on the issue.

The government told a Senate committee yesterday that it was rethinking its action after receiving new advice.

Dentists who have failed to follow paperwork rules in claiming Medicare fees are strictly liable to reimburse the government in full, according to the latest legal advice on this long-running issue. Earlier advice had said they could be counselled.

The latest development follows the refusal by many dentists to comply with government demands to repay a total of more than $21 million, in many cases for failing to provide the patient's doctor with a treatment plan. With another 535 audits of dentists under way, there is the likelihood hundreds more dentists will face claims for repayment.

An associate secretary at the Department of Human Services, Ben Rimmer, told the Senate's finance and public administration committee that officials had previously exercised discretion in taking an ''educative approach'' towards dentists found to be non-compliant.

Dr Rimmer said subsequent legal advice had shown that those found to be non-compliant had incurred a debt that the Commonwealth was obliged to recover.

This was ''a matter of concern'' in relation to the treatment of 17 dentists who had been dealt with under the earlier educative policy, he said.

''That is one of the factors that has led the minister [Kim Carr] to ask us to inform the committee that he believes some of the matters under discussion today require further consideration,'' he said.

The committee is inquiring into an opposition call for legislation to overturn the mandatory repayment provisions in cases where the dentists have merely breached administrative requirements.

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