The number of free NHS dental treatments in Wigan 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 Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group area administered 46,348 courses of treatment in 2018-19 to adults exempt from charges, NHS Digital figures show.
Free treatments, which are offered to low-income groups, elderly people, pregnant women and full-time students, have dropped by 27 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.
Band 1 procedures, such as check-ups and examinations, and urgent operations to address severe pain or risk of deterioration both cost £21.60 per treatment.
Band 2 treatments, such as fillings, extractions and root canals, cost £59.10, while Band 3 procedures, such as crowns, dentures and dental bridges, cost £256.50.
In Wigan, dentists did not charge their patients for 23 per cent of the courses of treatment carried out in 2018-19.
Free urgent procedures have seen the largest drop, falling by 32 per cent over the last five years. And as the number of free treatments declines, more patients are now being charged for their dentist appointments – 155,100 treatments incurred a fee last year, compared with 144,797 in 2013-14. They brought in a total of £6.4m 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.”
The policy in England is in stark contrast with those in other UK nations where patients do not receive fines for mistakenly claiming support for NHS care.
A Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership spokesperson said: “We believe it is essential that everyone across Greater Manchester is able to see a dentist and we are proud to have seen a year-on-year increase in the number of people visiting dentists across the entire city-region.
“In Wigan alone approximately 200,000 people have visited a dentist since June 2018, this is a year on year increase in access to general dental services. If anyone is unsure about the cost of dental treatment or of their eligibility for free treatment you can check on the NHS website or speak to your dental surgery for advice.”