By Sachin Ravikumar
LONDON (Reuters) – The British government set out a 200 million pound ($253 million) plan on Wednesday to try to fix a struggling state-run dental system which has left millions of Britons without access to affordable treatment.
Released two days after television pictures showed hundreds of patients queueing to register at one newly-opened dental practice, the plan was met with immediate criticism from the industry which said it failed to tackle fundamental problems.
An estimated 12 million people across Britain cannot get treatment from the state-run National Health Service (NHS), due to a shortage of dentists and problems with funding, leaving patients with a choice between expensive private care or no care.
“We know that for too many people, accessing a dentist isn’t as easy as it should be,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement.
“This new recovery plan will deliver millions more NHS dental appointments and provide easier and faster access to care for people right across the country.”
The government’s “Dental Recovery Plan” will pay NHS dentists 15-50 pounds per patient to treat one million of them who have not seen a dentist in two or more years.
And 240 dentists will be offered one-time payments of 20,000 pounds for working in underserved areas, or “dental deserts”, for up to three years.
The British Dental Association (BDA) lambasted the recovery plan as “unworthy of its title”, saying the higher fees would only benefit roughly a tenth of NHS dentists and that the money allocated was simply being recycled from existing funding.
The dental trade body said the plans did little to address the “dental contract”, which it views as the main problem, arguing its payment structure does not distinguish between the complexity of treatments, leading to many practices running at a loss and dentists leaving the NHS.
“It won’t halt the exodus from the workforce or offer hope to millions struggling to access care,” Shawn Charlwood, chair of the BDA General Dental Practice Committee, said.
In a stark and very visible symbol of Britain’s dentistry problem, hundreds of people queued outside a new dental practice in southwest England on Monday in the hope of registering as NHS patients, with police called in to help manage the crowds.
The problem has also added to an impression of more general decay of public infrastructure across Britain where the wider NHS is dealing with near-record patient waiting lists and the cost of living is rocketing.
Britons will vote in an election expected later this year that polls predict will replace Sunak’s Conservatives with the Labour Party – which has promised to reform the dental contract within days of taking office.
“Ministers wanted to stop dentistry becoming an election issue. By rearranging the deckchairs they’ve achieved the exact opposite,” the BDA’s Charlwood said.
($1 = 0.7916 pounds)
(Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)
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