The British Dental Association says the system for claiming free care is a “nightmare by design”, and has led to thousands of fines and a huge drop in attendance – which will be made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Adult patients in Lancashire received 69,801 courses of treatment exempt from charges in the first six months of 2019-20, a new NHS Digital biannual report shows.
This was 7,346 fewer than during the same period a year earlier – a 10 per cent drop in treatments.
And it represented a 36 per cent fall from the first half of 2013-14, the earliest year with comparable data.
Free treatments – offered to low-income groups, the elderly, pregnant women and full-time students – dropped by six per cent across England in the first six months of 2019-20 compared to a year previously.
Compared to 2013-14, dental care exempt from charges plummeted by almost one third.
Charlotte Waite, chairwoman of the BDA’s community dental services committee, said NHS dentistry will see a huge drop during the pandemic, but added that the fall in free care was “entirely man-made”.
She added: “The system by which many often vulnerable patients claim is a nightmare by design, where mistakes come with a £100 penalty charge.
“It’s left hundreds of thousands of innocent people facing fines and encouraged millions more to miss out on care.
“Parliament instructed government to change tack, but sadly patients who tick the wrong box on a form are still being treated like fraudsters.”
The NHS recently launched a video campaign warning that “not all benefits entitle you to free treatment”, and that false claims – even those done by mistake – could result in a £100 fine.
It points viewers towards an online “eligibility checker” for those who want to find out if they are entitled to free treatment, or help with costs.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We want everyone to have access to high-quality dental care, wherever they live – in the last two years nearly 22m adults were seen by a dentist, and in the last year more than 7m children have been seen.
“Nationally, we are monitoring access to dentistry closely and are working with NHS England to look at what further action can be taken.”