Low-income patients are turning away from NHS dentistry in droves, thanks to a hostile environment cultivated to keep costs down, as official figures show a fall of two million treatments delivered to patients exempt from NHS charges since 2013/14 – a fall of 23% in 4 years.
8,818,170 free courses of treatment were provided in 2013/14 compared to 6,819,158 in 2017/18.
Dentist leaders have expressed grave concerns that patients are being put off from seeking treatment by the government’s aggressive approach to fines for ‘misclaiming’ free care. Over 400,000 high needs patients a year – many on very low incomes, the elderly, and those with learning difficulties – have received £100 fines simply for ticking the wrong box on forms.
The number of fines issued went up 10-fold in the last 4 years, from 33,887 in 2012/13 to 365,181 in 2016/17, yet 90% of appeals are won. NHS England has circulated a “Don’t Assume You’re Entitled” campaign to NHS practices, and an official NHS Health Costs twitter feed - meant to provide advice on claiming – is routinely discouraging claims, and utilising the hashtag #DontRuntheRisk.
Dentists have accused ministers of unwillingness to engage with hard to reach families while pursuing low impact, unfunded initiatives preaching to regular attendees, as data also reveals over 4.9 million children (41.4%) failed to see an NHS dentist in the last 12 months. The NHS has spent £165 million on child tooth extractions in hospitals since 2012.
The Government spend per head on NHS dentistry has fallen £4.95, from £40.95 to £36, in the last five years, while patient charges have increased by over 23%. Nearly 1 in 5 patients have delayed treatment for reasons of cost according to official statistics.
The British Dental Association’s Chair of General Dental Practice Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen said:
“This huge fall in NHS attendance amongst patients exempt from NHS charges is the logical outcome of failed government policy.
“Ministers have created a hostile environment for vulnerable groups and those on low incomes who have a right to free dentistry. These patients, often with complex needs, require early intervention not the ever-present threat of fines.
“Sadly the government has shown no interest in getting hard to reach families to attend when prevention could save our NHS millions.”