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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 4828

Mr NEUMANN (1:44 PM) —I speak in support of the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and the Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. This is particularly important to me because in my previous work, before I was a member of this parliament, I was a lawyer. I dealt with child safety and protection issues and conducted many cases over the years where I saw photographs of young children and adolescents who had dreadful teeth. It was often an issue of contention for parents in the family law system as well. In my previous role I was involved in the West Moreton community healthcare council. One of the constant refrains of people, especially in rural and regional areas outside Ipswich, was the need for greater health care, particularly more attention to dental health and access to dentists, especially for children.

This bill has to be read in the context of the Rudd government’s commitment under COAG on 26 March 2008 to give $1 billion to the state governments to relieve the pressure on our public hospitals for 2008-09. Of course, $500 million of that $1 billion will be received by the states and territories in this financial year. That is a demonstration of the commitment of the Rudd government to relieving pressure on the public health system in this country, especially public hospitals, which particularly in rural and regional areas are the front line of dental health care. This is in stark contrast to those opposite in the chamber, who gave us 11 years of neglect in healthcare funding, particularly in dental care. We believe that the national health and hospital system needs radical surgery, and that is so in dental health care as well.

When it comes to dental health in this country, we inherited a legacy of neglect and inaction. Upon election to office, the former Howard government abolished the Commonwealth dental scheme and ripped $100 million a year from the public dental system. This terrible public health policy left 650,000 Australians languishing on waiting lists for public hospital oral care and treatment. The Howard government gave us soaring costs for dental care, so much so that in 2007 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that one in three Australians reportedly passed up the chance to visit a dentist because of cost. Further, 18.2 per cent reported that they would have a lot of difficulty paying even a $100 dental bill.

Regrettably, the Howard government dragged Australia’s standard of dental care to amongst the worst in the OECD, with Australian adults ranking the second worst when it comes to dental health care. It is tremendously disappointing to see that there has been a substantial decline in dental health care among our teenagers. This bill attempts to redress this problem. As a result of the inaction of the Howard government with respect to dental health care, one-quarter of Australians were not getting the dental care they urgently required. As a result of the failure of the previous government in the area of dental health, 17.4 per cent of Australians over 15 years of age reported they were incapable of eating specific foods due to teeth and gum decay.

Perhaps most disappointing of all of the legacy of the Howard government was the real decline in the proportion of Commonwealth government funding of public hospitals, which, as I said, carry so much of the front-line burden of public dental health care. What did the Commonwealth government under Mr Howard do to public hospital funding? According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released on 5 October 2007, during the Howard years, from 1995-96 to 2005-06 the Commonwealth government’s share of public hospital funding decreased from 45.2 per cent to 41.4 per cent. In contrast the state Labor governments, so criticised by the Howard government, actually increased their proportion of spending from 45.7 per cent to 50.6 per cent during the same period. It is a fact that the Howard government failed to invest properly in dental health care. After much public concern and criticism, the Howard government responded with a scheme they called the chronic disease scheme. And guess what? After three years, from 2005 to 2007, only 7,000 people were assisted, due to complex eligibility and referral criteria.

Having been left under such financial pressure, the stark choice for many Australians was between putting food on the table and appropriate dental treatment. The Howard government’s chronic disease scheme was in fact a dodgy scheme. It might have had great aspirations, but in fact it left millions of Australians in urgent need of dental care.

An example of the extent to which they trumpeted this scheme inaccurately to mislead the Australian public was a statement made by the former Liberal member for Kingston, Kym Richardson. He told an Aldinga Bay Residents Association meeting on, I think, 10 October 2007—just before the election—that the government had announced that:

... any person with acute oral pain, any person with oral pain ... can receive up to $4,100 over a two year period ...

The reality under that scheme was that, if you had a chronic medical condition such as heart disease or diabetes,  you had poor oral health care or a dental condition which exacerbated a chronic or complex disease and you were being treated under a multidisciplinary healthcare plan, then you may have been eligible for assistance with your dental care. This narrow eligibility meant that only 7,000 people received assistance over the three-year period. This is emblematic of the consistent failures of the Howard government and the rhetoric it employed to inflate the impact of that failing program.

In total, the Howard government spent less than $50 million on their failed dental scheme. This compares to the $780 million for new dental programs that will be introduced and run over the next five years under this legislation. That is the coalition government’s gift to Australia’s public system: disinvestment, disdain and disinterest, particularly in the oral health of Australians. So it is left up to us to fix that problem. The Howard government failed. The Rudd government has to pick up the ball.

We have put aside $10 billion in health and hospital funding to support strategic initiatives and investments in health. We have put aside $600 million to work with the states and territories to cut elective surgery waiting lists. We are delivering GP superclinics, 31 in all, across the country. We are investing money significantly to tackle other issues that are important to the health of Australians, including $53.6 million to tackle binge drinking, $21.5 million to assist the Northern Territory to boost health services in that outlying area and $249 million to address a national cancer plan over five years. These things are important and they add on to our dental plans. They are integral to delivering Labor’s election commitments. The $780 million over five years is for two parts of the Rudd Labor government plans: $290 million over three years for a new Commonwealth dental health program, and $490.7 million over five years for a teen dental plan. These bills provide a real legislative framework for payment under a new dental benefits schedule, and it is modelled very much on the Health Insurance Act 1973 concerning Medicare.

The new dental benefits scheme will target specific groups of people based, for example, on age and income testing. There is an opportunity, of course, for the Minister for Health and Ageing to include by legislative instrument other dental benefits in the future. I look forward to those, because I think that the task really needs tackling and there is a lot of work to do. These bills allow for the payment of dental benefits and the introduction of the Rudd government’s Teen Dental Plan. They seek to implement and administer the plan also, and they really herald a new era in the dental health of Australians. Specifically, it is the first part of our scheme to do so. This commitment across so many years is welcomed in my electorate, I know, particularly in the rural and regional areas. It is welcomed in that area because it can take between one and two years for a person to see a dentist in the public health system.

From 1 July 2008, the Rudd government will provide up to $150 per eligible teenager towards an annual preventive check for teenagers aged 12 to 17 years in families receiving family tax benefit part A and for teenagers in the same group receiving youth allowance or Abstudy. I welcome the fact that it is estimated that 1.1 million teenagers will be eligible for the Teen Dental Plan each year in a population of 21 million. The Teen Dental Plan will be administered by Medicare using the eligible data provided by Centrelink. In the first year of the program, Medicare will send out vouchers to all eligible teenagers and their families in July/August, and then on a monthly basis to newly eligible teenagers and their families. In subsequent years, vouchers will be distributed in January and then on a monthly basis thereafter. Teenagers will be able to use their vouchers to receive a preventive dental check from a private dentist. The annual check will include an oral exam and, where required, an X-ray, scale, clean and other preventive services. Patients will be able to claim a dental benefit for the preventive check, similar to the Medicare process that so many Australians are used to. If the dentist charges upfront for the preventive check, the patient will be able to claim a dental benefit of up to $150 through Medicare.

I strongly support this scheme. I think this will result in a dramatic improvement in the dental health of teenagers in this country. I think it will make a big difference to the teenagers in my electorate. I am the father of teenage daughters, and I know there are many of my daughters’ friends who will benefit from this scheme. The state of our dental health system in this country was appalling under the Howard government. We are determined to fix the failure of the Howard government, which saw over 50,000 people languishing in hospitals each year with preventable dental conditions. We are determined to alleviate the burden on our public health system by the increased funding, because delays in dental health can mean the difference between a filling and an extraction. It can mean the difference between pain and acute pain. It can mean the difference between the continuation of pain and the cessation of it. I commend the bill. I think it is a great bill, and I applaud the minister for health for the initiative.