Health: Register now `or lose your NHS dentist'

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Patients are being urged to re-register with their dentists before Christmas to avoid being among the four million people who are expected to be chopped from dentists' lists for NHS treatment under changes to the rules by the Government.

From the New Year, any patients who have not seen their dentist since September 1996 will be automatically struck off their dentist's register. Alan Milburn, the health minister, confirmed in a Commons written answer: "The most recent estimate is that registration numbers may gradually fall by about four million as a result of this change."

The numbers have alarmed the British Dental Association, which today will be launching a new initiative to persuade patients to see their dentists before they drop off their lists. They are warning that if patients are de-registered, they will find it difficult to get back on lists because many dentists who still do NHS work are over-stretched.

"The Tories reduced the cut-off point from 24 months to 15 to save money by stopping capitation payments to dentists for patients who never turned up. The Labour government is about to face the flak for a Tory cut.

However, the scale of the numbers being removed from NHS dentists' lists was seen by Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat, as evidence that NHS dentistry was "in danger of disappearing".

He said: "Unless action is taken to recruit more dentists back into the NHS, this government will be responsible for NHS dentistry being a minority service."

Mr Milburn privately admits that a Tory scheme to reverse the decline in NHS dentistry has failed, and is looking at ways of improving access, including pumping pounds 9m into an initiative this year.

Dentists' leaders believe their fees should be substantially increased to encourage more dentists back into routine NHS work and free dental check-ups, even if it means reducing the scope of the work available on the NHS.