More than 38,000 people are being wrongly fined and branded fraudsters for attempting to claim free NHS dental treatment, medical leaders have revealed.
The £100 fines, which are imposed by an automated system, are being slapped on innocent claimants for minor paperwork errors and forcing many away from treatment.
Patients who refuse to pay up quickly face an increased fined of £150.
It can cause a lot of distress if people feel they are seen as fraudulent
Charlotte Waite, British Dental Association
The British Dental Association has undertaken an analysis which found 90 per cent of the fines hitting more than 40,000 people a year are unjustified.
The NHS has accepted there are problems with the system and promised to make improvements.
The health service currently receives around £4 million in revenue from the payments each year.
Charlotte Waite, from the BDA, told the BBC: “This has become a significant barrier to care.
“It can cause a lot of distress if people feel they are seen as fraudulent.”
She said among those caught out by the automated system was the elderly and frail, as well as those with dementia and learning difficulties who had made honest mistakes.
Many patients go home untreated because of confusion over their entitlement and worries about being fined, she added.
Most people have to pay for dental treatment, however those who are under 19, pregnant or with a new baby or in receipt of one a range of benefits are among those entitled to free care.
These include Pension credit and Income Support.
A spokeswoman for the NHS Business Services Authority, which oversees the fining system, said the checks play an important role in making sure free treatment is not unfairly accessed by those not entitled to receive it.
“We want to make sure that patients, particularly those who struggle with literacy, understand if they are entitled to receive free dental treatment of if they should pay,” she said.
CORRECTION: This article's headline has been amended to clarify that fines are issued by the NHS, not by individual dentists as an earlier version could have implied.