The number of free NHS dental treatments in the East Riding of Yorkshire has fallen by a quarter over the last five years, new figures reveal.
The British Dental Association says an “aggressive and heavy-handed” policy of automatically fining patients accused of misclaiming free care is fuelling a collapse in attendance among vulnerable groups.
Dentists in the East Riding of Yorkshire Clinical Commissioning Group area administered 25,823 courses of treatment in 2018-19 to adults exempt from charges, NHS Digital figures show.
Free treatments, which are offered to low-income groups, elderly people, pregnant women and full-time students, have dropped by 25% since 2013-14.
Without an exemption, adults have to pay a charge to visit the dentist, which varies depending on the type of treatment received.
In the East Riding of Yorkshire, dentists did not charge their patients for just 15% of the courses of treatment carried out in 2018-19.
Free Band 2 procedures have seen the largest drop, falling by 27% over the last five years.
And as the number of free treatments declines, more patients are now being charged for their dentist appointments – 142,200 treatments incurred a fee last year, compared with 127,628 in 2013-14. They brought in a total of £5.5 million for the NHS.
Misclaiming free care can lead to automatic fines of up to £100.
The BDA says nearly 400,000 patients a year, including those with learning disabilities, have received fines, some simply for ticking the wrong box on a form.
The Department for Health and Social Care maintained that it is right to recoup money lost from people incorrectly claiming exemption from prescription and dental charges.
A spokesperson said: “We want every single person to have access to high quality dental care, and we have a number of clear, unchanged exemptions in place to protect those who cannot pay – including those on low incomes.
“If anyone receives a penalty charge notice incorrectly, there are procedures in place to challenge the decision and have the penalty withdrawn.”