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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 4821

Mr SYMON (1:09 PM) —I rise in strong support of the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and the Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 which will enact the Rudd government’s 2007 election commitment for a Teen Dental Plan. I welcome this bill for a Teen Dental Plan because it represents another way that the Rudd government is beginning the process of reinvesting in our health system for the long term. It begins the process of turning around 11 years of chronic neglect in this key area of health, an area that for some reason was never treated with the seriousness that it deserved. If there is only one thing we know about the previous government’s record in dental health it is this: they never believed it should be treated as a key area in health and attract the long-term investment it deserves.

Like so many other areas in health, the Teen Dental Plan reflects how this government has a completely different attitude in this area. At a cost of $490 million over five years the Teen Dental Plan is another critical plank of this government’s plan to ease the cost of living for the working mums and dads of Australia and my electorate of Deakin. This plan forms a critical first step in the Rudd government’s long-term plan to provide broader dental coverage for Australian families through Medicare. It is a critical first step to restore the federal government’s role in dental health care in this country, and it does so by looking at the situation on the ground in teen dental health. It looks at what working families are going through out there in the real world and what the health experts are telling us about what is happening in this area. The Teen Dental Plan looks at these critical things and identifies that there are both the short- and long-term challenges to be tackled if we want to get this right. In the short term we need to address the immediate need of working mums and dads to get their teenage kids in for a preventive check-up as soon as possible. In the short term we need to give working mums and dads a way of getting around that financial hurdle so they can get their children into the dental chair.

In the long term we need to re-invest in preventive dental health precisely at a time when teenagers start to develop chronic dental problems. A preventive approach in this area is critical. Not only does it avoid far more costly dental treatment, it will also take pressure off our health system further down the line. For example, identifying the early signs of a tooth cavity can be the difference between a simple dental cleaning or a major tooth extraction involving surgery and a range of medicines—not to mention lost time at work or study, especially if a parent has to take time off to take their teenager to the dentist as well. Ask anyone who has persisted with a slowly developing toothache—there is absolutely nothing worse. It affects your ability to eat, to sleep, to concentrate, to live. And yet, somehow the importance of prevention seems to have eluded the Howard government.

This is the best way to move forward in dental health and this is the best role a federal government can play when it actually cares about the dental health of its young people. How refreshing it is to see a new federal government being prepared to play that role, compared to what we have seen in this country over the last 11 years. In fact we now have an entire generation of young Australians who have never experienced government support in dental health. What we saw was a steadily evaporating role from the previous government, a government that thought investing in dental health was just another line item that could be cut without consequence. This attitude was no more obvious than when the Commonwealth Dental Health Scheme was scrapped by those opposite in 1996. In fact this was one of the previous government’s first orders of business and shows just how important they felt investment in dental health was.

What were the consequences? Public dental waiting lists blew out to 650,000 around the country. That is the legacy of the previous government in this area: a nation of people with toothaches. When they scrapped the federal contribution to the scheme, along with that came the view that dental health was somehow an area of health not as important as the rest. And while on the topic of those waiting lists, the Teen Dental Plan will build on Labor’s $290 million plan to provide one million extra dental consultations to help clear that backlog. Together, both commitments total $780 million over five years to restore and improve dental health in Australia, underpinning that this funding is a shift in the climate in dental health. The average working family, like the many thousands in my electorate of Deakin, can start to see that their federal government does have a major role to play in dental health. Up until now they have been left wondering why they could get government support for a medical check-up on their children’s tonsils or a sore throat, but not for getting their teeth done right next door!

From 1 July 2008, the Teen Dental Plan will help those working mums and dads with the cost of living by slashing the cost of a trip to the dentist for their teenage kids. This is a plan set to benefit 1.1 million teenagers nationwide, as well as those parents that shoulder the cost. It will provide $150 per eligible teenager aged 12 to 17 to get that yearly check-up and keep their teeth in good health. The check will include an oral examination and, if clinically required, X-rays, a scale, clean and other preventive services.

While many primary school children receive school dental services, these services are not as widely available to teenagers. And what the statistics are telling us is that most chronic health problems begin in the teenage years. So by targeting teenagers, the Teen Dental Plan builds upon that process of dental health coverage and encourages our young adults to continue to look after their teeth once they become more independent. Under the Teen Dental Plan, families will receive a voucher advising them of their eligibility for a dental rebate of $150 to take their teenager to the dentist. And if they are eligible they will be able to take their children to the dentist, get them a check-up and have $150 per child reimbursed through Medicare.

Once real-time eligibility systems are fully established, the dentist may also bulk bill the patient. And what that means for the average Deakin family with two kids aged 13 and 16 is that if they receive family tax benefit part A they will get back $300 a year for both children through Medicare. And according to the 2006 census of population and housing, there are 7,917 people aged 12 to 17, constituting seven per cent of the population, in Deakin. That is almost 8,000 children in my electorate alone that may already be showing early signs of tooth problems. That also represents thousands of working parents that are juggling the family budget and trying to find that $300—or more—for a dental check-up. And as things have stood until now, there has been nothing in place to help get them that check-up. These families have resigned themselves to the idea that the federal government does not want to know them when it comes to their kids’ teeth.

I know, as I get around my electorate in Melbourne’s outer east, that the cost of living is biting hard. With the cost of groceries, petrol and the mortgage continuing to spiral, that is $300 less that a family has to worry about finding from the budget. I am yet to meet a parent from Deakin who tells me this is not a good idea, that it is not needed or wanted.

As we all know from experience, a trip to the dentist is certainly not a cheap proposition any more. The cost of even a basic check-up these days can reach almost $300. Add on the cost of extra work, like a basic filling for a cavity, and it is climbing towards $400. According to the 2006 census, the median family income in Deakin is $1,266. Without the Teen Dental Plan a Deakin family on that income with two teenagers would eat away almost 50 per cent of their week’s budget on a visit to the dentist for two teenagers. When you take out money for the mortgage repayment, groceries to feed two teenagers and themselves and the cost of running two cars in the outer east, not much is left over.

So it is very easy to understand why so many families with teenage kids that are dealing with day-to-day pressures like bills, the mortgage, groceries, petrol, and school costs often avoid a trip to the dentist. The prospect of a $300 out-of-pocket hit for a single child, when there could be two or three kids of a similar age needing exactly the same treatment, is just too much for the weekly budget to bear. So, when the sums are added around the kitchen table, the trip to a dentist is bumped down the list of priorities. This is a decision made under financial duress. It is a decision made against the better judgement of many families. But, many families simply have no choice because the car always needs petrol, the cupboard always needs filling and the bills always need to be paid. The visit to the dentist goes down that list. And all the while those parents are left wondering if avoiding a check-up will cost them even more in the long run when their children develop cavities because they were not detected early on.

These are the worries parents have because of the trade-off many are forced to make. And their worries are valid. The statistics are telling us that neglecting our teeth during teenage years is now a very serious problem for us as a nation. The statistics show us that there is a big relationship between poor dental health and people not getting a check-up because they simply cannot afford it. According to the Australian Research Centre for Population and Oral Health report, Australia’s dental generations: the national survey of adult oral health 2004-06, as many as one in three Australians avoid the dentist just because of the cost involved. Tooth decay is Australia’s most prevalent health problem. Gum disease ranks fifth, and one-quarter of the Australian adult population are experiencing dental decay because they never had it treated.

One in six Australians aged 15 and above are at a point where they cannot eat certain foods because of problems with their teeth in the last 12 months. Furthermore, a report published by the Australian Health Policy Institute in 2001 reveals that Australia now ranks second worst in the OECD for dental health, and the situation for our teenagers is deteriorating rapidly. There is a fourfold increase in dental decay between the ages of 12 and 21. It also shows that almost half of teenagers now show some sign of gum disease. The pattern is easy to see—and so is the link between helping parents get their teenage children to the dentist and preventing those long-term dental problems.

The question then is what the federal government can do in response, considering the statistics are so telling. The right response, the one that addresses the link between improving teenage dental health and making check-ups more affordable, is here in the provisions of these bills. Aside from tackling the immediate dental health concerns for teenagers by removing the financial barrier for parents, it highlights the benefits of preventive health. It teaches our teenagers how important it is in the long run to address a health problem before it becomes a problem. It encourages our teenagers to keep their teeth in good health at a time when they are most likely to experience dental problems and, of course, at a time when they are becoming more independent and having to work these things out for themselves.

The Teen Dental Plan is a strong reflection of the Rudd government’s plan to invest in preventive health care across the board. It does this through helping working families and restoring the long-term vision in the way that we deliver health services in this country. It is an important part of putting dental health right again in this country. In concert with the Commonwealth Dental Health Program, the Teen Dental Plan will replace the previous government’s failed dental scheme—a scheme that was narrowly targeted and far too complex in its referral and its eligibility requirements; a scheme that did in the Commonwealth Dental Health Scheme and caused a 650,000-person waiting list blow-out; and a scheme that basically dropped the ball in dental health and told the states, ‘It’s your problem now.’ I know in my state of Victoria the state government has been working extremely hard to pick up the slack over the last nine years. In my electorate of Deakin in December 2007, waiting times for public dental services were 14 months for the Whitehorse local government area and 20 months for the Maroondah local government area. I note this because it is the legacy in dental care left to us by the former government. It is a telling sign of the state of things left to us by the previous government that we stand here and talk about these things today when debating this bill.

Finally, we have a federal health minister and a federal government that have a plan to work with the state governments. They will clear the backlog and make sure our teenagers get the check-ups they need to relieve pressure on the health system down the line. This was a major election commitment that was extremely well received in my electorate of Deakin. As I travelled around my electorate during the campaign, I spoke to many families and parents that were staggered about why they had never been offered any Medicare relief for basic dental work. They could not understand why they could go to the doctor and get payment back through Medicare, yet for another health service such as the dentist there was no payment back. To them it made absolute sense to cover basic dental with Medicare relief because the dentist is where the hip pocket gets hit hard. Your teeth are just as important a health issue as anything else you would go to the doctor for and then claim by using a Medicare card. In keeping with their logic, and our election promise, I strongly commend this bill to the House.