Rise in dental fees 'deliberately obscured'

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HEALTH MINISTERS have smuggled through a 2.9 per cent rise in dental charges from January - without announcing the increase. The rise is the second within a year and means that most dental charges will have risen by almost 10 per cent over the past nine months, compared with an inflation rate of about 1.5 per cent.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, accused Dr Brian Mawhinney of taking parliamentary accountability to 'an all-time low' by failing to announce the increase, instead 'deliberately obscuring' it in a Commons written answer on Monday evening.

Dr Mawhinney announced that dentists' NHS fees are to rise by 2.9 per cent from 1 January in order to achieve the 1.5 per cent average pay rise agreed for them from 1 April this year. The rise is needed to achieve their agreed target income because dentists have been doing less work than anticipated.

Nowhere in the written answer or the Department of Health's press release does Dr Mawhinney indicate that payments by patients will rise by the same percentage. Instead, he says the agreement reached with the dental profession 'underlines the Government's commitment to NHS dentistry'.

When a Department of Health spokesman was first asked if the rise meant an increase in patient charges, the spokesman said it was thought not. When it was confirmed that charges would rise and the department was asked why that had not been announced, a spokesman suggested the rise was contained in the answer 'to a certain degree'. When asked where, the department conceded Dr Mawhinney's answer had been 'not very well put'.

The 2.9 per cent increase comes only nine months after the Government increased from 75 per cent to 80 per cent the proportion of NHS fees that non-exempt patients pay. It means that treatment that would have cost pounds 18.75 in March will cost pounds 20.60 from 1 January, and that more complex treatment involving a crown, which would have cost pounds 127.20, will cost pounds 139.64.

David Blunkett said: 'Parliamentary accountability has reached an all-time low and now matches the contempt with which the public and elected representatives are being treated by the health service in general.'