About 30,000 fewer patients have seen an NHS dentist since new dental contracts were introduced.

The figures reveal the huge drop in people visiting a dentist in the two years to December 2007 than in the two years leading up to the start of the new system in April 2006.

Almost every part of the county recorded a reduction in attendance, with the number of patients seeing an NHS dentist falling by 13,072 in West Sussex, 9,354 in Brighton and Hove and 6,309 in East Sussex Downs and Weald.

Only Hastings and Rother showed an improvement, with the number of patients attending an appointment up by 782 since the introduction of the contract. Across England more than 800,000 fewer people saw a dentist over the period.

The data has been published by the information centre for health and social care.

The new system put primary care trusts (PCT) in charge of commissioning local services and replaced hundreds of separate patient charges with three simplified bands.

The Department of Health argued the reforms gave local NHS bosses the power to provide NHS dentists in places where it was difficult to get an appointment.

But many dentists were unhappy with the switch from payment-peritem to an annual income for a predetermined amount of treatment, measured by units of dental activity.

Thousands abandoned the NHS to go private, making the shortfall in services even more pronounced in some areas.

The Commons health select committee said the Government's goal of improving patient access to dental services had not been realised by its recent reforms.

The Department of Health has insisted services are being recommissioned, but the health committee, in its report into dental services, said patient access remained uneven across the country and the situation appeared to be deteriorating.

It concluded: "The indications are that the new arrangements have failed so far to improve patient access overall."

The MPs made a series of recommendations, including rewarding dentists who improved the oral health of their patients and allocating funding on the basis of a local needs assessment rather than following the historic pattern of services, which boosted areas that already enjoyed good cover.

A spokesman for East Sussex Downs and Weald PCT said there were now many more dentists in the area accepting new NHS patients than previously.

The Department of Health said the Government would carefully consider the committee's recommendations before publishing a formal response to its report.

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