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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 11218

Ms GRIERSON (Newcastle) (13:22): I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. Fundamentally, this bill aims to give Australians better oral health, healthier mouths and brighter smiles. It will amend the existing Dental Benefits Act to establish the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. Our government values the importance of healthy teeth and oral hygiene for our kids, ensuring that they do not encounter problems later in life—problems that, if exacerbated, could end up costing them and our economy much more: up to $2 billion per year. What we are debating here today is a great Labor investment in health, one that follows our historic tradition of health reform, including the establishment of Medicare.

As Emma Connors wrote in the Australian Financial Review last month, 'dentistry has largely operated in isolation from the rest of the health system in this country, even though the links are only too obvious to anyone on the front line.' Our government is seeking to put dental services at the forefront and seeking to address these as health issues. We want to create a generation of kids for whom visiting a dentist will be like visiting their regular GP, not a luxury item that many families cannot afford.

The bill extends the age range of those eligible to receive dental care, from children aged two to 17 years of age in families receiving the family tax benefit part A, Abstudy, carer payment, disability support pension, parenting payment and other social security payments—around 3.4 million kids in families earning less than $112,000; those are the people who will benefit. Current legislation provides dental checks for teens aged between 12 and 18 under the Medicare Teen Dental Plan.

This bill will replace that plan with the Child Dental Benefits Schedule, ultimately providing more services to many more children, with the Commonwealth taking on primary funding responsibility for basic children's dental services. Basic care will include such services as check-ups, cleaning, scaling, fluoride treatment and fillings. The services will be established under the Dental Benefits Rules, to be established at a later date, which will provide basic dental prevention and treatment services up to $1,000 for each child over a two-year period. We are strategically and fairly targeting low- and middle-income families who have gone for too long without adequate dental care. In my last newsletter I noted that, according to the Hunter Valley Research Foundation, who have been doing a wellbeing survey for some years now, more than 20 per cent of Hunter residents reported dental problems that had gone untreated in the previous 12 months—one in five people who do not attend to needed dental treatment. That is not good enough, but we have now taken these important steps to a better dental health system in Australia.

In addition to services for children, $1.3 billion of this funding will deliver 1.4 million extra services for those on low incomes, pensioners and those with special oral hygiene or oral health needs. The $2.7 billion Child Dental Benefits Scheme is part of our Labor government's $4.1 billion dental reform package, which was announced in August and funded over six years. We want to make it just as easy to visit the dentist as it is to visit the doctor for families, and we want to make dental care accessible to those people in the community who require it the most.

This package comes in addition to the $515.3 million public dental blitz that we announced in our 2012-13 budget. As we know, there are over half a million Australians on dental waiting lists, with many waiting for over a year to receive treatment. As a nation that prides itself on its health outcomes, this can be dramatically improved and we are moving towards that. By getting these people treated as soon as possible we are preventing problems from becoming exacerbated and escalating into something with more serious health implications down the track. The President of the Australian Dental Association, Dr Shane Fryer, has said that 'if dental care can be provided to children then their long-term dental health will be significantly improved'.

Our federal Labor government is boosting the public dental service workforce by funding additional training and improving infrastructure for practitioners in non-metropolitan Australia. We have stated this is a priority for our government and we are pleased that progress is being made. For too long there has been a city/bush divide in Australia when it comes to health care, and our government's reforms aim to bridge that gap through relocation grants and upgrades of dental facilities in those areas that require it.

This funding also provided $10.5 million to assist in the promotion of oral health, as was recommended in the report of the National Advisory Council on Dental Health. A 2007 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's Dental Statistics and Research Unit at the University of Adelaide informs us that Australians born after 1970, the 'fluoride generation', have generally half the level of decay experienced by their parents' generation. The post-fluoride generation has made many gains when it comes to oral health; however, this has in some instances come at a cost of increased complacency. The oral health of Australian children has been in decline since the mid-1990s. By the age of 15, six out of every 10 children have experienced tooth decay. That is a fairly staggering statistic.

The Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing reports that those earning more than $60,000 per year have, on average, seven more teeth than Australia's poorest people on incomes less than $20,000. Filtered water and too much sugar, cordials and soft drinks, often a staple in the 21st century diet for many young children, are proving to be detrimental to the health of this generation's teeth and gums. By putting the public gaze back onto dental health we can make significant gains by simply reminding people to brush and floss regularly, watch their sugar intake and get their check-ups when needed. This announcement also provided $450,000 over three years to NGOs to assist with pro bono dental service to people with limited means, including homeless people, Indigenous Australians, women and children in shelters as well as refugees. Those opposed to our dental benefits amendment reform package—and that of course is those on the other side of this place—have frequently stated that we are spending too much on dental health, which ignores the fact that this is an investment that will end up saving in the long term.

I was interested to hear the member for Ryan saying that our moving of this policy and legislation was a political act. Well, for us it is not about politics. It is not about protecting the reputation of the member for Warringah, which the other side seem to think they have to do. It is about economic management, about fairness and about addressing a social agenda item that for too long has been neglected.

There has been lots of fear mongering about where the money is coming from and how we can possibly afford a social agenda that includes such wonderful things as the NDIS, aged care, dementia and dental health. Well, a country like ours, with a credit rating of AAA from the three international credit rating agencies—for the first time ever, and it was achieved under a federal Labor government—can afford this and has to make responsible cuts so that we can afford these important social initiatives. I quote the Prime Minister:

If you have the right values, the right priorities, you can budget responsibly and you can help the people who need it most. What we don't ever do is conduct ourselves like the conservatives who enjoy delivering the cuts.

I like what she said and I agree with it. Labor governments cut dental schemes for millionaires; Liberal governments sack ambulance officers. I do not buy the argument that this great nation cannot afford this, that we cannot make responsible adjustments in our budget that will allow us to afford this.

I notice that Piers Akerman wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that the Labor government was scrapping a hugely successful policy in favour of a dismally bad policy, which could not be further from the truth. He is of course referring to the member for Warringah's Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which we are scrapping. It is a policy that is far removed from the description that Piers Akerman provided.

The Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, designed by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, when he was health minister during the dying days of the Howard government, is the scheme we are scrapping, and rightly so. I was here then, unlike a lot of members on the other side, and I remember the rock-solid promises the member for Warringah failed to keep when it came to health care for this nation. This policy of his is a dud. It has been one of the most widely rorted health schemes ever implemented by an Australian government. As Health Minister Plibersek has stated, the Howard-Abbott Chronic Disease Dental Scheme was projected—and these are the projections of those supposedly financially responsible mangers on the other side—to cost $90 million per year. However, due to misuse and the lack of strategic targeting of that policy it ended up costing $80 million a month. And those opposed to our plan say that we are wasting money. Shame. It is costing $80 a month and it is not strategically directed at the people who need it most and, unfortunately, that scheme, whilst it definitely has assisted pensioners and those who could not afford treatment, has seen millionaires claim over $4,000 worth of free treatment on the taxpayers' wallet. This treatment even could have been purely cosmetic, such was the looseness of that policy. The scheme was not means tested, which is the way of the conservative government, and has seen many crowns for millionaires paid for by the taxpayers. These are people who should never, ever be on the teat of the government. They should never be exploiting a government policy that is aimed at people who cannot afford good dental care. In some cases, dentists were filling out paperwork and claiming rebates for work that was never actually done. So, if that dog's breakfast of a policy, designed by the Leader of the Opposition, is anything to go by, it shows what might happen should he ever return to government. The Australian people would be the losers from such a dreadful event.

Those who cannot afford treatment under our scheme will still be able to access it through the public system. But by ending the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme we are making significant savings that would otherwise have seen the well-off receive subsidised treatment. This is a nation of fairness, and it is always disappointing when people rort. We know that governments are there to share out the wealth of this nation, but do it in a way that is fair. That is what we expect and that is what should happen.

Currently in Australia around 20,000 children under the age of 10 are hospitalised every year because of poor oral health. These of course are just the children we know about and who then receive treatment, for there would be many more going undetected. Of children aged 12, 45.1 per cent have experienced decay in their permanent teeth, not their baby teeth but their permanent teeth. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare tells us that in 2007 around 46 per cent of six-year-olds who attend school dental services had a history of decay in their baby teeth. The National Advisory Council on Dental Health has reported this year that one-third of Australians are dependent on the market based fee-for-service system as they are not eligible for public dental service, and nor do they have private health insurance. In 2011 the Brotherhood of St Laurence's End the decay report stated that there are around 50,000 hospital admissions due to dental issues. These are hospital admissions that are preventable, as long as we make significant and required investments into the system.

Sadly, over 85 per cent of Australia's 11,000 dental practitioners work in the private sector, a statistic that is not representative of those who can afford treatment in such a system. Our government's reforms will ensure that the oral health of Australia ceases its decline. They are bold, cost-effective investments into the oral health of those who need it most, helping individuals lead healthier, happier lives, and ultimately being a benefit to the whole of society.

We are proud of our legislative reforms in dental health, because we know they will put a brighter smile on the face of millions of people across the country, including many for whom a visit to the dentist is a rare occasion—that is, if they can afford to visit at all. Good oral health means a healthy body and healthy mind and a very healthy society. I commend the bill to the House.