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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 4907

Mr COMBET (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement) (7:46 PM) —The issue of dental care, of course, is an issue that is of great interest to many of my constituents as well, and a number of the members who have spoken previously have drawn attention to the circumstances in their own electorates. But it is relevant right across the country for many working families who are struggling with the financial costs that are associated with dental care. Indeed, as we have heard from some of the other speakers, a number of Australians are struggling with these costs, and the numbers are growing quite considerably. The 2007 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report concluded the following: 30 per cent of Australians reported avoiding dental care due to the cost, 20.6 per cent said that the cost had prevented them from having recommended dental treatment and 18.2 per cent reported that they would have had a lot of difficulty paying a $100 dental bill—and, of course, $100 does not take you too far once you are in the dentist’s chair. At the last election Labor promised to implement a teen dental health plan, and with the passage of the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and the cognate bill the government will have met that commitment.

Before I get to the substantive aspects of the bills I just want to outline some of the other statistics I think relevant to Australian dental health. At the same time that we have seen the pressure of dental health care costs rising for working families, we have seen a worsening of some of the dental health of many Australians. It is a sad fact that tooth decay ranks as one of Australia’s most prevalent health problems. Some of the statistics relating to this problem are really quite alarming, and I think it is important to emphasise them. It is estimated that 25.5 per cent of the Australian adult population have untreated tooth decay. One in six Australians aged 15 have avoided certain foods because of problems with teeth during the last 12 months. As we have heard the member for Braddon note, 50,000 Australians a year are hospitalised for preventable dental conditions. Between 1996 and 1999, five-year-olds experienced a 21.7 per cent increase in deciduous tooth decay. Hospitalisation rates for children under five for dental conditions increased by 91 per cent between 1994-95 and 2004-05, a shocking statistic over a 10-year period. There was also a 42 per cent increase in children being treated in private hospitals for dental cavities between 2000 and 2005.

For a country which is relatively affluent by world standards, this is an unacceptable situation. It is statistics like these that have led the Rudd Labor government into action in the area of dental care. As a government, we are determined to turn around a decade of neglect under the previous government. It can never be forgotten, of course, that the previous government abolished the Commonwealth dental health care program in 1996, taking out $100 million per year from public dental health services. I think there is no doubt that that decision in 1996—which, surprisingly, I have heard some of the members opposite attempt to defend during the course of this debate—has contributed to a number of the statistics that I have referred to worsening over the past decade.

I turn to the bills before the House, and firstly the teen dental health plan. The bills implement Labor’s teen dental health plan, which was announced before the election. This will mean that, from 1 July 2008, the government will provide up to $150 per eligible teenager towards an annual preventive check for all teenagers aged between 12 and 17 years in families that receive family tax benefit part A, and also teenagers in the same age group who receive the youth allowance or Abstudy. The annual preventive check within the scheme will include an oral examination and, where clinically required, X-rays, a scale and clean and other preventive services, which are extremely important for teenagers. This plan will provide relief for a large number of families who are struggling with the rising cost of dental health. I am pleased to say that this initiative alone, it is estimated, will benefit over 1.1 million eligible teenagers across the country. I am pleased to say that we believe that, in my electorate of Charlton, it will potentially assist approximately 14,000 of the family members of my constituents.

Funding for this initiative was included in the government’s recent budget, with a total of $490.7 million being provided over the next five years, an extremely substantial commitment by the government to try and improve teenage dental health. We have been advised that the Department of Health and Ageing is currently working with the Australian Dental Association and other stakeholders to provide information about the Teen Dental Plan to dentists to ensure that the scheme runs smoothly and that people are able to access it in an appropriate manner.

The other element of the legislation before the House is that, to facilitate the teen dental health plan, the bills will establish a new dental benefits scheme. This scheme will provide the necessary framework to allow for dental benefits to be targeted to specific groups of patients. It allows for the targeting of the measures in these bills towards teenagers and gives the government the opportunity of exploring further schemes to target dental health care assistance to those most in need.

It is important to emphasise that the teen dental health plan is only the first part of the government’s plan for improving dental services in Australia, but of course it is not the only part. In the recent budget the government also provided $290 million over three years to state and territory governments to help fund up to one million additional consultations and treatments for Australians needing dental treatments. This is all about implementing a new Commonwealth Dental Health Program.

Funding arrangements to support this program are being developed between the Commonwealth and states and territories. States and territories will be required to maintain their own level of funding for dental services but will be able to use this additional funding to supplement their existing public dental services. It is extremely important, of course, that the Commonwealth’s contribution will make a net addition of $290 million worth of dental services They will also be able to access the funding to purchase services from the private sector in areas where public dental services are not able to be accessed.

All of this is indicative of the fact that the Rudd Labor government—unlike the previous government—is taking leadership in the area of dental health rather than relying on the tired example of the previous government, who resorted to the argument that this is all the responsibility of the states. I have noted that speaker after speaker amongst those opposite has emphasised, as a justification for the previous government’s policies in this area, the argument that this is all the responsibility of the states and that that is why we have the problems we have. The fact of the matter is that there is a responsibility on the part of national leadership as well to address serious problems of this nature.

Within the budget the government also committed $49.5 million to the James Cook University proposal for the Cairns School of Tropical Dentistry. This project will deliver capital infrastructure aiding in the delivery of 60 dentistry places a year. So that is an important addition to the capacity within northern Australia.

The initiatives that I have outlined have all occurred in the first six months of the Rudd Labor government. This stands in contrast—and, having listened to some of the contributions from those opposite, it is important to emphasise this—to the record of the Howard government in the area of dental health over 12 years. As I indicated earlier, it is a well-known fact that the Howard government scrapped Labor’s Commonwealth Dental Health Program in 1996, ripping out at the time $100 million a year in contributions to public dental health services.

Mr Haase —It ran out.

Mr COMBET —The effects of this become obvious when you look back at the period since that cessation of that program. From the other side of the table I hear the interjection that it ran out. There was an obligation to make sure that these important health effects in the dental area were addressed by government, and that was the failure. In the circumstances of the decisions of the previous Howard government, it is important to note that over the last decade state and territory governments have more than doubled their investment in public dental care. Yet over the same period public dental waiting lists blew out to 650,000 people after the Howard government’s decision to axe the Commonwealth Dental Health Program.

Mr Haase interjecting

Mr COMBET —The states doubled their funding, in fact. In 2004 the Howard government belatedly attempted to address their failure in this area by making dental care available through Medicare, but only to people with chronic illnesses and complex care needs. However, I think it is now well recognised that the scheme introduced in 2004 was riddled with problems—including complex and restrictive eligibility criteria, high out-of-pocket costs and somewhat complex referral processes from GPs for people to be able to access the entitlement under the scheme.

As a result the scheme only assisted about 7,000 people over a three-year period, in a context where we have 650,000 on a waiting list. I do not think that can be characterised as a success in public policy terms. So the Rudd Labor government has made an important start in trying to address this important area of public health, where I think, as a nation, we have been failing people in the community. For these reasons I commend the bills to the House.