The British Dental Association has condemned moves in the Autumn Statement that could withdraw free dental care from the long-term sick, while offering no additional resource to support the rebuild of NHS dentistry. Under the government’s new Back to Work Plan, announced in today’s Autumn Statement, welfare claimants who refuse to engage in job seeking activities will be lose access to NHS dental care, free prescriptions and other benefits.
The BDA believes the threat to withdraw access to free NHS dentistry from those not actively seeking work will inevitably hit vulnerable patients with higher needs the hardest and that the move will prove a repeat of the ‘ineffective approach’ taken to NHS fraud, which saw over £180 million in fines issued to innocent patients for ‘misclaiming’ free care that they were fully entitled to. Heavily briefed, dental care is thought to be among the “additional benefits” set to be lost alongside free prescriptions and legal aid.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has made clear the reforms will not apply to claimants with children or disabilities.
A recovery plan for NHS dentistry was pledged by the Government in April but remains undelivered. The lack of any dedicated funding in the statement suggests that when this plan is finally published it will lack the material resources to make any meaningful headway on the current access crisis or halt of the exodus of dentists from the service. As part of its damning inquiry into dentistry, the Health and Social Care Committee stressed any plan must have “the scope and ambition required to immediately address the crisis of access people across the country are experiencing. This should be accompanied by the necessary funding and a plan for swift implementation.”
The service’s budget has remained effectively static since 2010 at around £3 billion, which has translated into savage real-terms cuts. Many practices now face the prospect of delivering some NHS treatments, particularly those that require laboratory work like dentures or bridges, at a financial loss.
No commitment was made to increase funding to NHS dentistry, which is struggling with a lack of dentists, a declining number of practices and a backlog of appointments.
Neil O’Brien MP, the recently departed minister with responsibility for NHS dentistry, said just days after his resignation, “if such fiscal headroom is opening up, I hope the Chancellor will devote some of it to health – GPs and dentists could rapidly do more with some extra funds.”
BDA Chair Eddie Crouch said: “The Chancellor offered no hope to the millions struggling to secure care. He failed to offer a penny to a service on the brink, just pulling away care from the patients who need us most. The Treasury will decide whether NHS dentistry has a future, but there’s no sign this government is willing to step up.”
Commenting on the announcement in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, Neil Carmichael, Executive Chair of the Association of Dental Groups (ADG), said: “The threat of removing access to NHS dentistry assumes that people can readily obtain these services in the first place – we know this isn’t the case. ADG’s work on Dental Deserts shows that deprived areas are more likely to have shortages in NHS dentists. The ‘carrot and stick’ approach to welfare reform will not work when most people are already failing to access NHS dental care. Further affront is caused by the government’s failure to announce any additional funding for NHS dental services in today’s Autumn Statement. As the government makes empty threats, NHS dentistry continues its fall into decay. “
The Autumn Statement also included news of a cut to National Insurance. Iain Stevenson, Head of Dental at Wesleyan Financial Services, said: “The cut in National Insurance will be welcomed by many dentists who are classified as self-employed, easing financial pressures at a time when the cost of living remains such a challenge. Dental practice owners will also be happy that the 100% capital allowances on qualifying expenditure has now been extended. This will allow them to plan their investments in equipment and premises with more certainty, enabling them to broaden their range of services and capitalise on the opportunities that offering private cosmetic work can bring, for example.”