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Quebec association of dental surgeons president Serge Langlois speaks to the media, July 26, 2018 in Montreal. Langlois has filed the paperwork for 2,000 dentists that would start the process of its membership leaving the province's public health network.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Vowing to maintain public dental services in the province, Quebec’s health minister said Thursday he would sign a ministerial decree to block dentists from withdrawing from the public health system amid a bitter standoff over contract negotiations.

Gaetan Barrette’s announcement came shortly after some 2,000 dentists filed paperwork to withdraw from the public system.

The escalation erupted as the two sides remained locked in a dispute that has the dentists threatening to pull out of the system and deprive hundreds of thousands of people of subsidized care if a new agreement can’t be reached.

Dentist association president Serge Langlois said the first batch of withdrawals filed Thursday is scheduled to take effect Aug. 25, which he says gives the government plenty of time to make a deal.

“Thirty days is a very, very sufficient period to be able to reach an agreement,” he told a news conference.

“But for that, Barrette needs to put an end to his attitude.”

The dentists asked earlier this week that Premier Philippe Couillard intervene in the negotiations with their association’s 4,300 members, who have been without a contract since 2015.

They say they no longer wish to deal with Barrette, who they accuse of wanting to make changes that will lower the annual income of generalist dentists across the province.

They earn, on average, $180,000 a year.

Earlier on Thursday, Barrette announced he would sign a ministerial order to impose a special law to ensure services are maintained, and later made it official at a news conference.

“It will not be possible for the dentists to unilaterally withdraw from the public system,” he said.

“I cannot accept, as a member of this government, that (patients covered by the public system) be held hostage based on negotiations, when the negotiations can easily be done without that.”

Langlois, for his part, suggested Barrette’s tactic amounted to “bullying.”

“When we arrive with a special law, I don’t think we’re improving the situation,” he said.

Quebec covers the costs of dental care for children under 10 years old and for people living on welfare.

Langlois says if the dentists quit the public system about 620,000 people will be deprived of subsidized care except for emergency dental procedures.

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