At a meeting this week, 103 dentists voted unanimously to go ahead with Avon Dental Care. Cheques for the pounds 100 membership fee are already starting to arrive and the scheme will be operational by the autumn.
David Lewis, a dentist for 26 years who has a practice at Nailsea, near Bristol, said: 'The Government's fee reductions in February were the last straw for the NHS. We knew dentists would be withdrawing from the NHS in considerable numbers and we were worried about the consequences for the profession and patients.'
Avon Dental Care will offer fixed fees, 24-hour emergency cover and a complaints procedure for any patient unhappy with treatment. 'It is not a rip-off and is not intended to make dentists rich,' Mr Lewis said.
Charges will be pounds 6.50 for a check-up compared with pounds 3.75 for NHS patients. A major filling will be pounds 18 rather than pounds 10.50 on the health service, and crowns pounds 104 compared with pounds 60. Patients going private would expect to pay three or four times the NHS prices.
Avon's dentists have a history of militancy. They led the way in opting out of the NHS and argue that the area suffers particularly badly with low salaries. 'Some dentists do make a lot of money, but not the majority,' Mr Lewis said.
'The scheme is about giving dentists who can't continue in the NHS the confidence to make a move into the independent sector. And it will give patients the confidence that there is a scheme outside the NHS where they won't be charged the earth.'
He said there were a number of dentist bankruptcies in Avon this year and a fear that some practices were starting to give unnecessary treatment to bump up fees.
Louise Foster, chairwoman of the Bristol and District section of the British Dental Association and a lecturer at the University of Bristol, sympathised with the plight of local dentists and supported Avon Dental Care.
'The Government has got its sums badly wrong. Dentists are not a militant lot, but some are being paid a pittance,' she said.
'The scheme will guarantee an income without making private fees so extortionate. Everybody is chasing the richest 10 per cent of the population.' She said one reason Avon dentists suffered was that they had paved the way in the practice of minimal intervention - with the accent on prevention - whereas, in the north of England for example, dental decay is higher and there is a lot more drilling and filling. 'Dentists in Avon have tried to run ethical practices and are now having problems. The cowboys will always make money. The trouble with the system at present is it penalises those who are trying to do a good job,' she said.