Patients’ fear of ‘aggressive’ fines linked to major decline in free dental care across Norfolk, say experts
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Patients are being 'frightened' off making dentist appointments due to a 'belligerent' approach to fining those who wrongly claim exemption from charges, according to industry leaders.
An almost 50pc drop in free treatments in some places in Norfolk and Waveney is being fuelled by the "significant impact" of £100 fines imposed on patients who erroneously claim exemption, the secretary of the county's dental committee has alleged.
NHS Digital statistics show all areas of the county have seen a fall in free treatments, with patients in south and west Norfolk accessing almost half as few (46pc) cost-exempt procedures in the last year as in 2013-14.
Patients in north Norfolk saw a 38pc drop, while Norwich saw a 27pc fall, and there was a 25pc decline in free dental care access in Great Yarmouth and Waveney.
Dental committee secretary Nick Stolls said: "The government are taking a much more belligerent approach to patients that incorrectly claim exemption.
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"The impact is quite significant.
"Lots of patients incorrectly claiming are vulnerable; perhaps brought by a carer or don't have capacity to remember if they're exempt or not.
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"The system is so confusing many patients aren't aware they are claiming inappropriately - it's certainly not done fraudulently.
"There are patients that are frightened of going to the dentists and claiming they're exempt. That fear is actually putting people off."
He added: "We've got to turn that tide away from patients not feeling welcome at the practice."
The British Dental Association (BDA) also described the policy as "aggressive and heavy-handed".
The organisation said nearly 400,000 patients a year, including those with learning disabilities, have received fines, some 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."
A Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: "We want every single person to have access to high quality dental care, and we have a number of clear, unchanged exemptions in place to protect those who cannot pay, including those on low incomes.
"If anyone receives a penalty charge notice incorrectly, there are procedures in place to challenge the decision and have the penalty withdrawn."
What did the NHS say about patient charges?
Dental charges in England mean without an exemption, adults have to pay a charge for a visit to their dentist.
The cost depends on the treatment received, with Band 1 procedures, such as check-ups and examinations, and urgent operations to address severe pain or risk of deterioration both cost £21.60.
While Band 2 treatments, such as fillings, extractions and root canals, cost £59.10, and Band 3 procedures, such as crowns, dentures and dental bridges, cost £256.50.
Misclaiming free care can lead to automatic fines of up to £100 in England - whereas in Scotland and Northern Ireland, patients are not fined for mistaken claims for care.
Rachel Webb, Director of Primary Care for NHS England and NHS Improvement East, said: "NHS England and Improvement is committed to ensuring everyone can access high quality dental care.
"We are working closely with our NHS dental providers in Norfolk to improve access to services for patients and this work continues.
"The Department for Health and Social Care has a policy in place to protect patients who are unable to pay.
"If a patient is unsure whether they are eligible to exemption from dental charges, they should speak to their practice."