Call for urgent action over lack of West Somerset dentists

URGENT action to try to tackle a ‘dental desert’ which has consumed West Somerset is being called for by the new Mayor of Minehead Cllr Andy Kingston-James.

It follows the last NHS dentist in Minehead telling her patients she would only treat if they went private or paid for dental insurance.

West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger told the Free Press this week he was pressing the government to tackle the financial issues which were behind the dental crisis.

Cllr Kingston-James said he fully understood how challenging it was for low-income families in West Somerset to be able to afford private fees or insurance, especially as they were already facing a ‘cost of living crisis’.

He has asked for the subject to be debated at the next town council meeting on June 28 although he accepted it was an issue which needed resolving at a national level because towns across the country are experiencing the refusal of dentists to treat NHS patients.

Cllr Kingston-James said: “It is a national problem and we need to work with other people such as the Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group which is responsible for planning and buying healthcare services for people across the county.

“The town council does not have any remit with regards to NHS dentists but we can start the debate and get others involved and look at what can be done to address the issue. We can ask our MP to raise this in Parliament and put pressure on the Government on behalf of the residents of Minehead.”

Mr Liddell-Grainger said: “This situation is not unique to West Somerset but it is a particularly acute problem in an area with such a large population of elderly people, many of whom will be in need of regular dental care.

“Fundamentally, it comes down to a question of money, and the dentists clearly feel that the pay scales they are on working within the NHS are not sufficiently generous. Dentistry is an essential service within the NHS framework and it is up to MPs of all parties now to put pressure on the government to improve those pay scales in order that people can access affordable dental care services again.”

The term ‘dental deserts’ was coined in recent months to describe communities where residents could no longer access NHS treatment.

Contract reform was said to be the key to resolving the issue with the British Dental Association saying the ‘Units of Dental Activity’ system introduced by the then-Labour Government in 2006 was no longer fit for purpose.

The Department for Health and Social Care said it was ‘engaging with dental professionals and relevant stakeholders in the UK and across Europe with a key focus on those providing free at the point of use dental services to identify workable models of dental funding and treatment’.

Exmoor resident Michael O’Keefe told the Free Press he was one of the patients who received a letter from the last NHS dentist in Minehead.

Mr O’Keefe said: “A private dental plan was offered for £15 per month.

“I asked to be transferred to another dentist in the practice but unlike a GP surgery I was apparently registered with this one dentist and not the practice and the other dentists were not accepting new NHS patients.

“I then tried the other dentists in Minehead but they, too, were no longer accepting NHS patients.

“I then searched the NHS website for dentists in nearby towns but the story was the same.

“In fact, the NHS website did not show a single dentist in the whole of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, or Bristol currently accepting new NHS patients.”

Mr O’Keefe said a recent newspaper article pointed to a third of the adults in England not having access to a NHS dentist, and many practices stated on their NHS pages ‘we are not accepting patients entitled to free dental care’.

He said: “How have we arrived at a situation where such a shameful and discriminatory statement is allowed on a NHS website?

“How will the future residents of the affordable housing being built in Minehead get access to NHS dental care?”

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