The legal struggle between California's dental hygienists and dentists entered a new phase Wednesday with the filing of a countersuit charging the California Dental Assn. with violating the state's antitrust laws.
The lawsuit, filed by the California Dental Hygienists' Assn. in Santa Monica Superior Court, accused the dentists' group of trying to eliminate possible competition by licensed hygienists in providing dental care services in California.
Kathy Alvarez, Dental Hygienists' Assn. president and a registered hygienist in the Los Angeles area, charged that lawsuits filed by the dentists were "mere sham proceedings" brought to drive her 5,000-member organization out of existence by exhausting its funds.
"CDA's purpose is to intimidate and pressure CDHA into abandoning its representation of the interests of its members," Alvarez said.
Bob Ingle, the dental association's spokesman in Sacramento, said the association had not seen the hygienists' action and could not comment on its allegations.
The hygienists' suit, filed by San Francisco attorney Kathleen Lucas-Wallace, was in response to a similar dental association action brought in December. The earlier lawsuit accused the hygienists of illegal price fixing by exchanging salary information.
Behind the legal filings is a battle of more than a year over the role of hygienists in providing dental services. The hygienists have supported legislative actions that would permit them to open their own offices and practice without the supervision of dentists.
Hygienists may clean teeth, take X-rays and administer fluoride treatments, but, under state law, they cannot fill cavities, administer anesthetics or diagnose dental problems. Colorado is the only state in which hygienists are permitted to practice on their own.
The dentists' group has insisted that patients may be abused if hygienists are allowed to operate without supervision.
Pilot Program Begun
Under a pilot program, jointly sponsored by the California Statewide Office of Health Planning and Development and California State University, Northridge, 15 hygienists have been permitted to work independently at various locations around the state.
The dentists attempted to block continuation of the program--called the Health Manpower Pilot Project--last year by filing a lawsuit. But a Sacramento Superior Court judge rejected the effort to halt the project.
In their latest suit, the hygienists are seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop the dentists from "engaging in filing further sham judicial proceedings, and monopolistic and anti-competitive practices."
The suit also seeks trebled damages, as required by the state's antitrust laws, and more than $500,000 in punitive damages.