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Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman's plan to provide free dental care to children under eight years old will take effect today. Preventive care, including sealing gaps between teeth and fluoride treatments, as well as repairs of injured teeth, fillings and some root canals will be covered under the new plan.

Orthodontic work, permanent crowns and dentures will not be covered.

Dental treatments involving the use of laughing gas will cost the patient a co-payment of NIS 20 per visit, while injections for local anesthesia - which are considered a part of the treatment - will not result in any additional charges.

Initially, the new services will be available exclusively at the four state-run health maintenance organizations as well as through HMO-affiliated dentists and orthodontic clinics.

As the relevant agencies prepare to implement the plan, lawmakers on the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee are currently discussing the possible formation of separate "dental HMOs" that would compete with the four big HMOs in providing orthodontic care. This proposal passed its first reading in the Knesset earlier this month.

Meanwhile, committee chairman MK Haim Katz (Likud ) sponsored a similar bill to buttress the original Litzman plan.

The four HMOs have already concluded their preparations for the initiative. In the last few days numerous public service announcements have been posted on their Websites. Beginning this morning, Israelis can make appointments via telephone with their HMO.

The Health Ministry is adamant in stressing that the plan will only be offered through the HMOs, and that anyone who takes their children to a private dentist will not receive a refund. The parents of would-be patients are also required to choose a dentist from a list provided by the HMO.

The ministry has recently extended the authority of the ombudsperson, Eti Samama, who will be tasked with fielding complaints from the public. Dissatisfied patients can also direct their comments toward customer service representatives at their respective HMOs.

Litzman hailed the plan as "a historic moment" during a press conference yesterday. Nonetheless, the budget for the plan has yet to be finalized, for the state has yet to approve financing of the dental care beyond 2010.