Pledge to offer free NHS dental checks adds to sector uncertainty, says expert

Out-Law News | 19 Nov 2019 | 11:12 am | 1 min. read

The Labour Party has announced plans to provide free National Health Service (NHS) dental check-ups for everyone in England by scrapping charges for basic treatments.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the move would take pressure off GPs and hospitals. The party said patients visiting their GPs or accident and emergency departments with dental problems was currently costing around £38 million a year.

It said it would scrap ‘band 1’ charges for NHS dental treatment, which covers check-ups and minor procedures such as X-rays or tooth polishing. Patients are charged £22.70 for band 1 treatment.

Dental expert Joanne Ellis of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said the proposals could lead to an increase in the value of an NHS contract through increasing the number of patients exempt from paying for dental care, but that it was unclear how it would be paid for.

Dental expert David Meisel also of Pinsent Masons said the proposals were expected to be the first of many sweeping changes to NHS dentistry proposed in the run up to the general election, with the NHS likely to be an important battleground between the major parties.

“The proposals add to the increasingly uncertain political landscape facing the sector. Operators are become increasingly expectant that the long-awaited NHS dental contract reform, most recently proposed for 2020, is now unlikely to be rolled out until 2021 at the earliest. The new contract, pilots of which have been in existence for several years, is built upon a hybrid remuneration structure combining activity and capitation models,” Meisel said.

“Providers are telling us that the main problem they face is an acute shortage of dentists and dental clinicians, and that they think that any proposal which doesn’t address this is unlikely to succeed," he said. "They would like to see an easing of restrictions on non-EU clinicians, a widening of the NHS claims system to allow a broader skills mix and an increase in the funding available to NHS clinicians.”

The British Dental Association (BDA) welcomed Labour’s plans, but said they needed to be accompanied by measures to support the NHS’s workforce.

BDA chair Mick Armstrong said patients were currently avoiding check-ups because of the charges.

"Any plans to boost access must go hand in hand with support for a service facing serious recruitment problems. NHS dentistry cannot be delivered without NHS dentists," he said.

Labour said the BDA had estimated the cost of its proposals at £450 million a year. It added it would set out fully costed proposals for NHS England funding in its election manifesto.