The number of free NHS dental treatments in Scarborough and Ryedale has plummeted over the past five years, new figures have revealed.
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 Scarborough and Ryedale Clinical Commissioning Group area administered 10,967 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 43% since 2013-14.
Across England, the number of free procedures fell by a quarter over the same period. Without an exemption, adults have to pay a charge to visit the dentist, which varies depending on the type of treatment received.
In Scarborough and Ryedale, dentists did not charge their patients for 20% of the courses of treatment carried out in 2018-19.
Free urgent procedures have seen the largest drop, falling by 49% over the last five years.
The number of paid treatments offered in the area has also dropped, but far less sharply – 42,800 treatments incurred a fee last year, a 6% drop on 2013-14.
They brought in a total of £1.7 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.”