Scots who pay for NHS dental work could see an increase in costs as part of changes announced by the Scottish Government – even though the SNP pledged more than two years ago to scrap the charges.
In the run-up to the 2021 Holyrood election, then SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon pledged NHS dentistry charges would be scrapped if her party was returned to power.
The SNP manifesto vowed to “abolish NHS dentistry charges”, however the Scottish Government announced on Thursday that changes to the payment structure will mean patients who are required to pay an NHS charge are “likely to see an increase in costs” – although it added this is dependent on their overall treatment plan.
Public health minister Jenni Minto said the changes will improve the system “for both dental teams and patients”.
She added the new model is “the first step in the process to make the services available on the NHS reflect the changing oral health needs of the population”.
Minto said: “It also reaffirms our commitment to the sector and to all NHS patients in Scotland.”
The changes, which come with an additional £10m of Scottish Government funding for laboratory based treatment items such as dentures, will see the fees NHS dentists receive increased.
The new payment structure will streamline the system, reducing the number of fees from more than 700 to 45 – with this aimed at cutting bureaucracy for dentists.
The Scottish Government also said the changes – due to come in from November – will allow for greater consideration of patients’ oral health needs, with more focus on issues such as preventative work to tackle gum disease.
Minto said: “We are confident that the modernised system, with increased clinical freedom for dentists, will provide longer-term sustainability to the sector and encourage dentists to continue to provide NHS care.”
She said “all patients will continue to receive free NHS dental examinations”, adding those exempt from charges – including children and young people under the age of 26 and those on certain benefits – will continue to be treated free of charge.
Around 40% of patients will continue to receive free NHS care and treatment, as they did under the previous arrangements.
Minto added: “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all NHS dental teams for their continued engagement and commitment to NHS dentistry.
“Increased costs for energy and the cost of living crisis still pose challenges for them but we will continue to work together to ensure the best quality of care is available.”
However David McColl, chairman of the British Dental Association’s Scottish Dental Practice Committee, said while some improvements have been made, “the fundamentals of a broken system remain unchanged”.
He added: “The Scottish Government have stuck with a drill and fill model designed in the 20th century. They were unwilling to even start a conversation on making this service fit for the 21st.
“Ministers cannot pretend this is a final destination for NHS dentistry in Scotland. We struggle to see how these changes alone will close the oral health gap, end the access crisis or halt the exodus from the NHS.”
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Dame Jackie Baillie said: “The SNP’s payment reform plans fall far short of the mark and risk forcing more and more dentists into the arms of private practice.
“The very existence of NHS dentistry is in doubt on the SNP’s watch.
“The Government must listen to dentists and implement proper pay reform before access to dentistry becomes even worse.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, meanwhile, accused the Scottish Government of having “abandoned NHS dentistry”.
He added the changes were “tinkering around the edges” and were a “complete insult to dentists and patients”.
Cole-Hamilton said: “As research from my party has shown, there has been a colossal drop in the number of treatments and check-ups being carried out on the NHS.
“Over a million people registered with an NHS dentist haven’t seen them for over five years and hundreds of dentists have been lost. Under the SNP, toothcare is fast becoming a luxury, leaving Scots struggling in pain.”