The number of free NHS dental treatments in Preston has fallen by more than a quarter over the last five years, new figures reveal.
The British Dental Association says an “aggressive and heavy-handed” policy of automatically fining patients accused of misclaiming free care is fuelling a collapse in attendance among vulnerable groups.
Dentists in the Greater Preston Clinical Commissioning Group area administered 25,722 courses of treatment in 2018-19 to adults exempt from charges, according to NHS statistics.
Free treatments, which are offered to low-income groups, elderly people, pregnant women and full-time students, have dropped by 28 per cent since 2013-14. Across England the number of free procedures fell by a quarter over the same period.
Without an exemption, adults have to pay a charge to visit the dentist, which varies depending on the type of treatment received.
Procedures, such as check-ups and examinations, and urgent operations to address severe pain cost £21.60 per treatment. Treatments, such as fillings, extractions and root canals, cost £59.10, while crowns, dentures and dental bridges cost £256.50.
In Preston, dentists did not charge their patients for 25 per cent of the courses of treatment carried out in 2018-19.
As the number of free treatments declines, more patients are now being charged for their dentist appointments – 76,800 treatments incurred a fee last year, compared with 72,366 in 2013-14. They brought in a total of £2.8 million for the NHS.
Misclaiming free care can lead to automatic fines of up to £100. The BDA says nearly 400,000 patients a year, including those with learning disabilities, have received fines, some simply for ticking the wrong box on a form.
Charlotte Waite, from the BDA, said: “Vulnerable patients will keep turning away from check-ups as long as ministers refuse to let go of their failed fines policy.”
“People will keep falling foul of a confusing system which won’t give an inch if you make an honest mistake.
“Sadly, the adults and children now failing to attend are precisely those who could benefit most.
“Ministers should be rolling out the red carpet for these patients, not providing reasons to bottle up oral health problems.”