Access problems highlighted

More than a quarter of a million people across England have lost access to NHS dentistry since the implementation of the new contract in April 2006, according to new figures.

Statistics published by The Information Centre show that 27,879,000 patients were seen by an NHS dentist in England in the 24 months up to 30 June 2007, compared to 28,145,000 in the 24 months up to 31 March 2006, a reduction of 266,000 patients. This figure is in addition to the approximately two million people that the Department of Health acknowledges wanted access but were unable to get it before March 2006.

Peter Ward, chief executive of the British Dental Association, said: ‘These statistics offer further evidence that the government’s reforms to NHS dentistry aren’t achieving their stated aims. This contract has failed to improve access for patients and failed to allow dentists to deliver the kind of modern, preventive care they believe their patients deserve.

‘It’s time that the government started listening to what dentists and patients are telling them and recognise that urgent action is required to address these problems.’

Conservative Shadow Health Minister Mike Penning accused Labour of ‘shamefully’ mismanaging NHS dentistry. He said: ‘When they came to power they promised everyone would have access to an NHS dentist but the situation has only got worse.

‘We warned the government of the consequences of their poorly costed and poorly planned new contract for dentists, but they ploughed on regardless. It is unacceptable that NHS dental patients should now be paying the price for Labour’s incompetence.’

Liberal Democrat Health Spokesman Norman Lamb called for an urgent independent review to provide recommendations on how to improve patient access.

He said: ‘The reform of the dental contract has been a remarkable failure for this government. It has achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended and what patients need. People still cannot find an NHS dentist in much of the country and in many cases the new system doesn’t provide enough money for dentists to treat NHS patients towards the end of the financial year.

‘When will the government accept that its reforms aren’t working and act to reverse the decline of access to NHS dentistry?’

But chief dental officer Dr Barry Cockcroft argued the figures showed patient numbers were ‘broadly stable’ and said critics should give the reforms a chance to ‘bed down’ before rushing to judgement.

He said: ‘Last year was the first year of fundamental and essential reforms to how NHS dental services are commissioned. Changes on this scale were always going to be challenging for the NHS and for dentists – and will inevitably take time to bed down.

‘Given that some 4% of previous services had to be replaced during the year, it is to the credit of the NHS and dentists that access has remained broadly stable during this transitional period.

‘As more and more new services get up and running, we expect to see increasing numbers of patients accessing services.’

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