Dentists shun NHS work: Pay dispute has led to half a million patients being taken off practice lists

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NEARLY half a million adult National Health Service dental patients have been removed from registers by dentists in less than a year because a pay dispute with the Government has led to more private practice.

The figure, compiled from statistics supplied by local Family Health Service Authorities, was described as 'scandalous' by David Blunkett, Labour health spokesman, yesterday.

'The Government's incompetent handling of the dental dispute has put the nation's teeth at risk,' said Mr Blunkett. The Department of Health supplied him with the figures in answers to parliamentary questions.

Dentists have been in dispute with the Government for a year since Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, imposed a 7 per cent cut in fees for NHS work because they were earning more than the levels set by their pay review body.

Members of the British Dental Association, and the smaller General Dental Practitioners' Association, voted not to accept new patients for treatment on the NHS. But some more militant dentists have been actively removing people from their lists.

The figures obtained by Mr Blunkett cover England and Wales from the beginning of last July to the end of April this year. During this period, 437,352 adults were deregistered by their dentists. Figures have varied widely: while in some urban areas not a single patient has been deregistered, in West Sussex 5,500 were removed in one week.

Michael Watson, head of practitioner services at the BDA, said: 'Some dentists are actively deregistering patients. We have no evidence that people are doing it lightly or recklessly. They are saying that the only way they can offer treatment is privately and we respect that decision.'

He said that a dentist doing this had to write to patients telling them of the decision and that if a person being deregistered could not find another NHS dentist then the FHSA had to help them do so.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that, despite the deregistration, the total number of adults registered as NHS patients had gone up by 600,000 to more than 22 million in the past year.

He said: 'The overall numbers are going up and will continue to go up.' The increase is thought to be accounted for by new registrations.

But Mr Blunkett said that lack of a firm decision by the Government on dentists' pay six months after the Bloomfield report was published is damaging the health service.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, former head of the Northern Ireland civil service, recommended that the Government should consider limiting access to NHS treatment to ensure that the most vulnerable groups continued to benefit from the service.

Mr Blunkett said: 'Virginia Bottomley must act now to put an end to the uncertainty.

'It is time for the Government to clarify what they want from the service and to lay to rest the real fear that they are about to withdraw free check-ups and treatment for pregnant women, nursing mothers and other key groups as part of the proposed public-expenditure cut-backs.'

Last month, the House of Commons Select Committee on Health, which has a Conservative majority, said in a report that free dental checks and routine care must be restored to all NHS patients to sustain post-war improvements in dental health.

Ian McCartney, Labour's spokesman on the National Health Service, said yesterday: 'The Government must accept the health select committee's recommendations.'