A DENTIST who was wrongly pursued for more than £50,000 in 'misclaimed' treatment fees only for the case against him to be dropped days before it was due to go to court has accused Scotland's regulators of making practitioners sick with "protracted, false, and threatening" investigations. 

Hugh Taggart, from Giffnock in East Renfrewshire, was forced to cash in his pension and sell both his dental practices during the five-year ordeal.

The father-of-two, 56, was also prepared to sell the family home he shares with his wife and children aged 10 and 13 when Practitioner Services Division (PSD) suddenly backed out of bringing the case against him at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in October. 

Mr Taggart has now referred two of the senior dentists involved in bringing the case against him to the General Dental Council (GDC), claiming that they knowingly made false allegations against him and were "threatening and abusive" in their correspondence - including warning him that the investigation would be intensified if he refused to pay PSD the £53,108 he was told he owed.

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He said: "Their actions against my professional integrity are not in isolation and they have pursued many other Scottish [dentists] in the same manner. Their actions are oppressive and instil a genuine sense of fear."

Mr Taggart added that he is also keen to bring his experience to light because court documents and minutes appear to show that the regulator has been collecting and keeping thousands of pounds in fees that should be paid back to dental patients if their treatment is found to have been unnecessary or incorrect. 

The saga began in 2011 when PSD - now part of NHS National Services Scotland - wrote to him asking to provide 11 patient record cards.

The organisation, which administers money paid to dentists, GPs, pharmacists and opticians, is tasked with examining any anomalies and recouping funds where practitioners are found to have claimed back too much, whether by accident, fraudulently or by providing clinically inappropriate treatment. 

Mr Taggart was told he was an 'outlier' - or anomaly - in the provision of acrylic occlusal splints, a sort of mouthguard used to protect teeth from excessive grinding leading to headaches, jaw pain, and dental damage. 

He returned the cards with a covering letter explaining that he had been on a number of training courses relating to the procedure and had recently finished another course highlighting their benefits for patients, which may explain why he was more likely than some other dentists to be carrying out the treatment. 

Mr Taggart heard nothing for three and a half years, until PSD wrote to him in November 2014 explaining that their monitoring had again identified him as an outlier. They gave him 14 days to go through 20 years' worth of patient record cards to identify and return to them all cases of patients fitted with splints.

Mr Taggart contacted his indemnifier who wrote back to PSD rebuffing their demand, arguing that it was an impossible timeframe to sift through thousands of records. PSD responded by asking for 20 cards instead. 

In January 2015, Mr Taggart attended a meeting at PSD headquarters in Edinburgh, bringing the 20 patient record cards with him. 

He said he had hoped that a face-to-face discussion would resolve the confusion and prevent an unnecessary investigation. 

"The best way to put it is that I was basically roundly abused, threatened and it was a complete and utter waste of my time to go to the meeting," said Mr Taggart.

"All they really wanted were the record cards. They didn't take on board anything that I had to say about the courses I'd be on, or why you'd give this type of dental treatment. I was threatened that I would be referred to the General Dental Council if I didn't play ball with them.

"I left feeling utterly humiliated, fearing for my livelihood."

Over the following weeks, it emerged that PSD were seeking to recover just over £53,000 from Mr Taggart.

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PSD reimburses dentists every month for the cost of treatments they have carried out on NHS patients.

Suddenly, and without Mr Taggart's consent, PSD began deducting £1200 a month from the sums they were paying back to him with a view to recouping £53,000 - even though he was contesting the claim.

Gradually they began clawing back even more - £1600 and then £2100 a month.

Mr Taggart said: "There were negotiations ongoing between my lawyer and practitioner services, and it became clear that if I didn't continue paying this money - which I hadn't consented for them to be taking off me - then they would refer me to my regulator, the GDC, and they would pursue me through the courts. 

"They actually said that if I did pay them the money, they wouldn't refer me to the GDC. But they didn't tell me what they were going to refer me to the GDC for."

Mr Taggart had established his own dental practice in Pollokshaws, Glasgow, in 1990 and a second in Williamwood, East Renfrewshire, in 2011, but said he felt he was left with no choice but to sell them both in 2016 to avoid financial ruin. 

He took a job working as an associate dentist in a Glasgow practice and subsequently approached a civil litigation lawyer to fight his case. 

In 2017, his lawyer lodged a writ at Edinburgh Sheriff Court challenging the deductions. They stopped immediately. 

However, the action triggered a series of wrangles between Mr Taggart's lawyer and the PSD legal team.

Lawyers for PSD argued that while Mr Taggart's claims were neither fraudulent nor inappropriate, he had not complied with "the spirit of the rules and regulations".

They said they would reimburse him - but would then launch a fresh action forcing him repay it all over again. If he failed to comply, he would be subjected to an even more rigorous investigation of his dental work. 

Mr Taggart's lawyer hit back, arguing that PSD had unlawfully taken money off future earnings without his consent and breached the five-year limitation period for reclaiming debt by seeking money going back 20 years. 

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Eventually, PSD backed down and agreed to repay Mr Taggart with interest, totalling £27,000.  However, PSD then counter-sued to recoup the money.

On three occasions, Mr Taggart was due to face them in Edinburgh Sheriff Court but on all three occasions they walked away.

Finally a date was set for a four-day showdown on October 21, by which time PSD had gradually whittled down the sum they were seeking from Mr Taggart to £16,000. 

With days to go, however, they finally dropped the case saying there was no "public interest" in pursuing him for such a small amount. 

Mr Taggart was paid £18,000 in expenses by National services Scotland, but has heard nothing since. He remains furious at the stress and upheaval the case has caused both him and his family. 

Robert Jagger, one of the UK's leading experts on dental splints, had been lined up as an expert witness in support of Mr Taggart.

Mr Taggart believes that this, combined with the fear of an embarrassing judgement going against them, spurred PSD to drop the case at the eleventh hour.

"I just feel like I've lost the last five years of my life," he said. "I cashed in pensions, I sold my businesses, we were on the verge of selling our home when this was dropped. 

"I'm absolutely disgusted at the length of time it's taken - it's put me through absolute hell. 

"There are a number of scandals within this, but what really burns within me is that I've not had the opportunity for my day in court to relay this to the profession, because the dental profession really doesn't understand what is going on."

In particular, Mr Taggart was alarmed by evidence that money owed to patients was being taken. 

With the exception of under-18s, students, pregnant women, new mothers or those on a low income, NHS patients are required to contribute 80% of the cost of their treatment, up to a maximum of £384.

The remaining 20% is subsidised by taxpayers. If these treatments are later deemed to have been inappropriate or irregular, patients should be reimbursed for their costs. 

Documents submitted to court by PSD during Mr Taggart's case included an itemised list of patients and the fees they had paid.

These appear to show that PSD was not only collecting the 20% it claimed Mr Taggart owed to taxpayers but the 80% patient contributions as well - the so-called 'gross fee'. 

In a statement, NHS NSS denied that this was the case.  A spokeswoman said: "At no time did the amount that PSD recover [from Mr Taggart] include any payments made by patients."

However, the minutes of a November 2017 meeting of the Scottish Dental Practice Board (SDPB) - the body which oversees PSD - note that there has been "no legal challenge concerning recovery of the gross fee by PSD".  

As the majority of Mr Taggart's work in his Pollokshaws practice involved deprived patients not eligible to pay for treatment, most of the £53,000 originally sought was taxpayers' money rather than patient contributions.

Furthermore, as the disputed splint treatments were eventually found not to have been clinically inappropriate, none of Mr Taggart's patients were ultimately entitled to be reimbursed. 

But that would not always be the case. 

"When they were recovering the £53k from me unlawfully, it included patient contributions worth £2779, and they kept that money," said Mr Taggart.

"They took money that they were not entitled to take, that they should have paid back to the patients, and they didn't do it. I'm just one dentist they are doing this to. It must be more widespread."

A spokeswoman for NHS NSS, said: “In 2013 the system identified a high level of claiming by Mr Taggart for a specific procedure, and an investigation took place.

"PSD commenced to recover overpayments from Mr Taggart’s ongoing payments for General Dental Services treatment each month. 

“The case did not proceed to court because it was not in the overall interest of the public purse to continue with legal action.

"It was determined that, independent of the outcome, the cost of recovery from Mr Taggart would exceed the overpayment amount itself.”