Thousands of patients could be denied vital NHS dental care as health bosses struggle to plug a £7m black hole in the budget.
Government initiatives to address oral health in Northern Ireland - which is the worst in the UK - look set to be left in tatters as money is running out to fund NHS dental treatment.
John Compton (right), one of the most senior figures in the health service, has revealed there is a £7m shortfall in the dentistry budget this year.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal the Health & Social Care Board may be forced to cut payments to NHS dentists this year in order to plug the shortfall.
This could mean dentists may be unable to afford to treat NHS patients and may be forced to take them off their books.
Alternatively, treatments currently available on the NHS could be scrapped with patients going without or having to pay hundreds of pounds for the treatments themselves.
Dental work currently available under the NHS which could be cut includes:
The British Dental Association (BDA) said the possible 7% shortfall in the budget for health service dentistry in Northern Ireland could jeopardise improvements made in the provision of patient care.
Peter Crooks, chair of BDA's Northern Ireland dental practice committee, said: "Budgets are a political decision and our elected representatives face some tough choices on public services. But it's important those decisions are taken with a full understanding of what they could mean for service provision and how they fit in the wider picture.
"In dentistry there is a clear trend towards a greater take-up of health service care with an approximate 18% increase in the number of patients registered with practices during the last 12 months.
"The implications of any shortfall in next year's budget for dentistry need to be fully considered and we urge Government to think through the consequences for dental practice and the public."
Richard Graham, a member of the General Dental Council for 10 years and the owner of two practices, said: "Dentists are being driven out of the NHS; two practices in this area have closed down in recent years because the bureaucracy in NHS dentistry was too much.
"There is the perception within the profession that there is an effort by the Government to run down NHS dentistry because it is too expensive.
"If the money we get per NHS treatment is reduced, we won't be able to see as many NHS patients."
On average, a five-year-old in Northern Ireland has almost 2.5 teeth affected by decay, while in England a five-year-old has over 1.5 teeth affected by decay. There are 1,001,094 patients registered with a dentist under the health service in Northern Ireland. There are 1,166 dentists in 379 practices, giving an average list size of around 2,600 patients in each practice.