Three former Japan Dental Association executives pleaded guilty Monday to bribing and entertaining two members of a health ministry advisory panel between 2001 and 2003 to pressure them into helping raise the fees patients pay to dentists.

Another former association executive postponed entering a plea until the next trial session, and the former chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Dental Association pleaded innocent.

During the opening session of his Tokyo District Court trial, former JDA Chairman Sadao Usuda, 73, said that while he owns up to all the charges against him, he believes his efforts to improve the overall position of dentists served to improve the people’s dental health.

“Oral hygiene and overall health are closely related,” Usuda told the court. “I believe having a surcharge system for dental care similar to that for medicine would improve dental care for all.”

According to prosecutors, the dental industry has long been frustrated because the fees dentists charge for treatment have been much lower than those charged by doctors. For example, the fee for a first visit to a doctor was 2,700 yen in 2000, compared to 1,860 yen for a dentist.

Usuda thus conspired with the four other defendants to bribe Takeshi Shimomura, 73, a member of the Central Social Insurance Medical Council and former chief of the Social Insurance Agency, and council member Katsutoshi Kato, 60. The bribe to get them to raise dental treatment fees amounted to 7.4 million yen in cash, fabric and gift coupons for tailor-made suits, and restaurant outings

Also pleading guilty Monday were former association executives Yasuyuki Hirai, 64, and Akio Umeda, 76.

Hirotake Uchida, 63, asked to enter his plea during the next trial session.

Yuichiro Honda, 73, former chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Dental Association, meanwhile said he “did not sense in the slightest” that bribery was taking place, claiming that while he knew gifts were given to Kato, he believed they were within the bounds of “social common sense.”

According to prosecutors, the health ministry had long rejected the dental association’s calls to raise treatment fees. But because of the JDA’s persistence, in April 2000 the ministry introduced a new surcharge category called “kakaritsuke shoshinryo,” or first personal dental visit.

This allowed dentists to charge first visit fees on a par with doctors if they provided tailor-made treatment, like creating a patient’s dental mold.

But the association was dissatisfied, saying the conditions were too rigorous, leading Usuda and the others to try to get the health ministry to relax the requirements, prosecutors said.

Between 2001 and 2003, Usuda and the four others gave more than 6 million yen in cash to Shimomura at expensive restaurants in Tokyo, persuading him to make favorable comments at advisory panels to ease the restrictions, they said.

Kato was given about 1.4 million yen worth of cash and fabric and coupons for two tailor-made suits for making similar comments and supporting the deregulation of another fee system to raise surcharges for repeat patients, the prosecutors added.

Usuda is known for his strong political and bureaucratic connections, and the JDA is a major contributor to the Liberal Democratic Party.

Usuda and Uchida have also been charged with misappropriating 50 million yen that was then “donated” in 2002 from the association’s political arm to Yukihiro Yoshida, 42, a dentist-turned-LDP lawmaker. Yoshida, who lost his Diet seat last year, has also been indicted in the case.

Usuda also allegedly gave a 100 million yen check to former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto before the July 2001 House of Councilors election. The check, which Hashimoto, according to earlier reports, denied being handed during a meeting, was not recorded in the Hashimoto faction’s political donation reports.

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