Cash strapped pensioners are being forced to spend savings on costly private dental treatment as they cannot get NHS care, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
And those unable to afford private care are resorting to over-the-counter repair kits to shore up crumbling teeth.
Some are so worried about lack of access to NHS treatment that they have taken to eating only mushy foods in an effort to avoid being left in pain.
This shockingly bleak picture of NHS dental care emerged after our resident GP, Dr Ellie Cannon, last week told how her clinic is being inundated with patients suffering from problems with their teeth but unable to access an NHS dentist.
Some were sticking their broken teeth back together with superglue, while others patched up cavities with chewing gum.
CREDIT CRUNCH: Janice Chapple (pictured), 74 , can’t afford the fillings she needs
Some told us they felt ‘frightened and let down’ by the NHS dental service at a time in their lives when they needed it most.
Children, too, are affected – parents told how they are unable to find NHS dentists for their children even though they are entitled to free NHS care until their 18th birthday.
Adults usually pay a small amount towards the cost of NHS treatment.
Our findings come as the parliamentary Health Select Committee launches an inquiry into the collapse of dental services in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The committee’s MPs will take evidence from health chiefs in the next few weeks.
A report, which is expected to contain hard-hitting recommendations for overhauling the system, is due next month. But in the meantime, patients are being left to suffer or forced to find the cash to cover dental bills that can reach hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
One worried reader told us: ‘I’m 78 and my teeth are crumbling. Having paid into the system all my working life, I feel let down.’
Another woman, in her 80s, wrote: ‘My husband and I are on pension credit [a top-up for those on very low income] and had all our dental work for free. But since Covid-19, all the dentists in our area have gone private. We now pay £17.50 each month for private dental cover – which we can barely afford.’
Janice Chapple, who is 74 and has Parkinson’s disease, contacted us to say that at her routine NHS check-up in December, she was told she needed five fillings in her decaying front teeth – but would have to pay for them as the practice was stopping all NHS work.
She said: ‘I feel really scared and I don’t know what to do. I just don’t have the money, even though the same practice could see me straight away as a private patient.
‘I’ll probably end up having to put it all on the credit card before my teeth fall out. I have bought a tooth repair kit from the pharmacy and stopped eating certain foods in case they crack my teeth.’
Cash strapped pensioners are being forced to spend savings on costly private dental treatment as they cannot get NHS care, The Mail on Sunday can reveal (stock photo)
Another reader, from Sidmouth in Devon, says she cannot find a practice that will treat her 15-year-old son after the dentist he saw was taken over by a private provider.
‘There are no NHS dentists anywhere in our area. We’d been going to the same practice since he was a toddler. Now it’s going to cost me £25 for him just to have a check-up – plus extra if he needs work, even though he’s entitled to free care.’
Their fears are being echoed on social media, too. One Twitter user described how her son’s girlfriend went to extremes after moving from Scotland to Somerset: ‘Last weekend, she flew back to Glasgow for her NHS dental appointment as it was cheaper than private dentists in Somerset.’
And a recent tweet by campaign group Toothless In England, which is demanding NHS dental care for everyone, said: ‘We’re hearing more stories from concerned parents where their children are going through the whole of primary school without ever having had a routine check-up.’
The British Dental Association (BDA) estimates 11 million people are caught up in NHS treatment delays and is calling for major Government investment to rescue the service. It says dentists are walking away from NHS provision because it does not pay enough to make it worth their while.
A recent BDA survey showed half the dentists polled had cut back on NHS work since the pandemic and 43 per cent said they planned to go fully private in the near future.
Dentists get paid by the NHS for Units of Dental Activity (UDAs). One UDA pays a minimum of £23. Each practice is allotted a set number of UDAs a year and given the cash to cover them.
For example, a routine check-up might fetch one UDA, but more time-consuming work, such as fillings, could use up three UDAs. Once dentists have exhausted their quota, they don’t get paid for treating any more NHS patients. This means they can do only a limited number of NHS treatments.
If they don’t use their quota, they must pay back the money that they owe. Last year, the Department of Health and Social Care in England ruled unused UDAs could instead be distributed among other practices, so more NHS patients could get the treatment they need rather than the cash go to waste. But new figures show that a record £400 million worth of UDAs has gone unspent in the past year due to a failure by NHS England to properly reallocate the unused quotas.
‘That’s an unprecedented amount of money,’ says Eddie Crouch, chairman of the BDA. ‘And it’s not ring-fenced so it will be lost to NHS dentistry.’
The BDA argues many dentists have been subsidising NHS work for years through private income. Meanwhile, the Oral Health Foundation has warned that a lack of access to an NHS dentist is partly to blame for what it calls a ‘catastrophic rise’ in childhood tooth extractions.
Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the charity, said there is a postcode lottery, with children in poverty-stricken regions three-and-a-half times more likely to need teeth out under anaesthetic than those in richer areas. He warned: ‘These differences have become increasingly apparent as NHS dentistry is put under more stress, with fewer NHS dentists and an NHS dental contract that does not work.’