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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 4895

Mr COULTON (6:45 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 tonight. Like the member for Bass, the previous speaker, I too have a lot of constituents who contact me about problems with dental health. In a rural area particularly, such as the electorate of Parkes, I think the effects of poor dental health are magnified. There are many towns in my electorate that do not have adequate dental services, and I need go no further than my home town of Warialda; we have not had a dentist in Warialda for many years now. Our nearest dentist is in the town of Inverell, which is 70 kilometres away. If you have a hole in a tooth, or you have a chipped tooth, unless you are in absolute agony you cannot get an appointment in Inverell for 4½ months. I think that puts it into perspective. When we are looking at obtaining the services of dentists, the real problem out there is that there is a lack of dentists. I know that my constituents are not the only ones. We have heard speech after speech here today on this bill about the lack of dental services in Australia.

I must say that I am not critical of the new government. Some of the measures that have come in are, I think, well intentioned, and I think that $150 a year for a preventive check for teens is a move in the right direction. But the problem in my area is that there is a lack of dentists who can deliver that. Once again, maybe without intention, this bill favours urban areas and cities rather than regional areas.

There is another problem. I know that children in my electorate are having massive problems with their teeth—I know this from firsthand experience with children that I know—but the $150 to see the dentist is only the first bit if they require massive dental work. As has been said previously here today, your mouth is part of your body and should be part of your overall health. But those services are not available. Under the previous government’s scheme, up to $4,500 was available for dental treatment that was health related and, while it fell short in some areas, it was excellent. If you had chronic dental problems that were affecting your health, you could get the money to fix it. I know that two or three years ago an elderly lady, a pensioner not far from where I live, out of desperation removed one of her own teeth with a pair of pliers. I think that in this day and age in a country such as ours it is a terrible thing that a lady in her senior years removed her own tooth with a pair of pliers.

The second part of this legislation relates to the Commonwealth dental health program. The government will give $290 million over three years to the states and territories to reduce public dental waiting lists. Again, I have no doubt that this proposal is well intentioned but, once again, in an electorate such as mine we have very few dentists in public hospitals; there are practically none. The other problem is that it has been funded and funnelled through the states. In her speech the member for Bass indicated that it was to stop the blame game and get the money to the states. I do not know what it is like in Tasmania, but in my state of New South Wales the New South Wales government is inept and incapable of managing the health system that we have. I am afraid that the Commonwealth funds are going to get gobbled up in the mire that is the New South Wales Department of Health. That is a tragedy because I think that if the money went directly to local communities there would be a possibility that that could do some good. But just giving more money to the New South Wales Department of Health is throwing it away.

The real problem is a lack of dentists. I will give the previous coalition government credit because they had started to tackle this problem. One of the programs they implemented, which is now in the process of coming to fruition, is at the School of Dentistry and Health Sciences at Charles Sturt University. There are several campuses in the Charles Sturt University network, and in my electorate a clinic is going to be built in Dubbo next year or in the later part of this year. The clinic not only will provide a training ground for rural and city people who want to study dentistry in a rural setting but also will give the residents of Dubbo and surrounding areas the opportunity to obtain dental services that they cannot get now, and a lot of the people who will obtain those services are from the Aboriginal community and pensioners and the like.

I think this is a practical move, because we need to train the dental professionals in the rural areas if we want them to stay there. I would encourage the Rudd government to follow the progress of the Charles Sturt University dental program and keep an eye on it, because I think there is a great will there. I have met with Professor Goulter, Vice-Chancellor of Charles Sturt University, on several occasions. He is hopeful that this is just the first stage and that when these core dental centres are operating then maybe we can have students and lecturers rotating through smaller towns such as Dunedoo, Coolah, Coonamble and Walgett and places like that that do not have dentistry at the moment; that once these schools of dentistry get going they can service a wide area. Once students get an understanding of country practice in medicine and in dentistry, they will not be frightened by it and I think that that will provide real results in the long run. The previous government committed $65.1 million to the School of Dentistry and Health Sciences, and I think that was money very well spent.

There is another thing that I would like to be considered with regard to oral health and getting professional help out there. In Gunnedah there is a proposal for a health service in association with training medical practitioners and in association with the local hospital and the local GPs, and there will be provision in that centre for a dental chair. The opportunity for a dentist to come through on a rotating basis or for a local dentist to undertake to train dental students in their final years is also a possibility. This Gunnedah health service is a service along the lines of the GP superclinics but with a few added extras. I have approached Minister Roxon and her office about this centre, because I think that training in the process of providing a service is certainly the model to use.

The other model that I would like to comment on is once again in my home town of Warialda. The much-maligned Regional Partnerships program provided $120,000 to help Gwydir Shire Council set up a walk-in, walk-out medical centre. I am proud to say that that medical centre is probably only a couple of weeks from completion. That will provide the opportunity for medical professionals, GPs, to come through and work there without the added burden of having to purchase a clinic. In this new Warialda medical centre there is provision for dentistry, speech pathology, physiotherapy and all sorts of ancillary health services, and I think this model is the way to go.

There are currently 650,000 Australians on public dental health waiting lists. This is purely because there are not enough dentists. While I am encouraged by the government’s commitment in this bill, I do not think it goes far enough. If we do not tackle the shortage of medical professionals, particularly dentists, in regional areas, it will not matter how much money you are given to see a dentist if there is not one available. The tragedy is that anywhere you go in my electorate you can see children in the street—children that I know, from families that I know—who are of the age of five and six who have rotten stumps instead of teeth. I think in this day and age that is an absolute indictment of our society. If we do not do something innovative and show a greater commitment from this place, as the leaders of this country, we will not overcome this problem.