Local health boards in Wales are believed to have underspent money intended to improve access to NHS dentistry by almost £22m.
The news comes as patients are struggling to register for NHS care in the country. Areas of West and North Wales are experiencing a huge shortage of NHS dentists as existing practices are full and unable to take on new patients.
The £21.7m projected underspend is enough to pay for new contracts for NHS dentists in some of the worst-affected regions of Wales, according to the Western Mail.
Stuart Geddes, director of the British Dental Association in Wales, said: ‘This certainly hasn’t helped access to NHS dentistry – the difficulty will be if there are not enough dentists to see the people who want treatment. Practices are under tremendous pressure to fulfil their targets for workload but they don’t want to see patients who require lots and lots of work, because, under the new contract, they only make up a small number of units of dental activity.
‘We haven’t yet seen any queues in the streets but we are hearing of practices that are at capacity and unable to take on more patients.’
The £21.7m figure, caused by dentists being unable to meat ‘unrealistic’ UDA targets, is a provisional estimate of the total underspend for the first year under the new dental contract. The final figures will be available in two months.
Helen Mary Jones, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Health Minister, said: ‘An underspend of this size will have a huge impact on patient care.
‘There have been some improvements in access in the last 12 months, but there are still areas where there are huge, huge problems. That local health boards should be sending any money back when there is such a need is absolutely shocking. It is completely unforgivable that this kind of money is not being spent.’
Jonathan Morgan, Conservative health spokesman, added: ‘This is utterly disgusting. When you consider that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people the length and breadth of Wales who are unable to access NHS dentistry, we discover that local health boards have underspent the new contract money by £22m.
‘I believe it is time for a thorough review into the implementation of the contract and to see how public money is being spent. I am not convinced at all that the new contract is leading to an increase in the number of people who are registered with a dentist and have the opportunity of improving their oral health.’
An Assembly Government spokesman, however, said: ‘We do not recognise these figures.
‘The significant investment in the new contract has made a very noticeable difference in access across Wales and problems are now confined to a very few areas including Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Anglesey.
‘Work goes on to improve the position in these areas and we expect further progress over the next few months so that everyone in Wales who wants access to an NHS dentist will be able to get one.’