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Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Page: 5085

Ms ROXON (Minister for Health and Ageing) (8:00 PM) —in reply—I thank the members for contributing to this debate on the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and the Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. I acknowledge that many members on this side of the House, and the occasional one on the other side of the House, are pleased that this measure is going to provide significant benefits to many hundreds, in fact thousands—if not over one million—teenagers and other people who will be assisted through the Commonwealth Dental Health Program across the country. These two bills will allow the government to deliver on a key part of its election commitment to improve dental health for working families and address Australia’s dental crisis. The government has committed a total of $780 million over five years for two new dental programs: the Medicare Teen Dental Plan and the Commonwealth Dental Health Program. Both of these programs are squarely targeted at people who are most in need of help, many of whom could not afford dental care without this assistance. We will work with the states and territories and the dental profession to expand the provision of dental care, with a focus on treatment for those in greatest need and preventative care for eligible teenagers. These significant commitments will help ease Australia’s dental crisis, help end the blame game and start addressing the serious problems in oral health that the Howard government ignored for more than a decade—not least the 650,000 people left to languish on public dental waiting lists across the country.

The passage of these bills will enable the Medicare Teen Dental Plan to commence next month. The government is providing $490 million over five years for the Medicare Teen Dental Plan, which will provide up to $150 per each eligible teenager towards an annual preventative check. This will target those who are aged between 12 and 17 in families receiving family tax benefit A. Teenagers in the same age group receiving Youth Allowance or Abstudy will also be eligible under the program. About 1.1 million teenagers will be eligible under the Medicare Teen Dental Plan each year, and the Medicare Teen Dental Plan will operate as part of the broad Medicare arrangements through a new dental benefits schedule.

Under the Commonwealth Dental Health Program, the Rudd government will be providing an additional $290 million over three years to improve access to public dental services, working in cooperation with the states and territories. This marks a stark change from the last decade of the Howard government: playing the blame game and criticising the states for not doing enough on dental health. Commencing in July this year, the Commonwealth Dental Health Program will assist the states and territories to reduce waiting times by funding up to one million additional dental consultations and treatments over the next three years. This means that pensioners and concession card holders will be able to get more help. It will assist the poorest members of our community and people with the poorest dental health. It will also give priority to Indigenous people and preschool children, groups that the Howard government’s dental program clearly failed. We are negotiating with the states and territories to ensure that those with chronic disease will still be given priority through this program.

In summing up, I again wish to thank the members for their contributions to the debate on these bills. In the debate we heard the member for North Sydney claim that the opposition ‘clearly understands the burden of dental disease in our society’. In fact, we heard many opposition members bemoan the poor dental health of many Australians. But it seems to me that the member for North Sydney and the opposition are crying crocodile tears when it comes to dental health. If they really understood dental disease, why did the former government rip $100 million a year from the Commonwealth Dental Health Program and ignore dental health as an issue for more than a decade?

The member for North Sydney professed concern for the 650,000 Australians on public dental waiting lists, and yet, bizarrely, after 11 years of inaction, argued that it is the Rudd government which is leaving them languishing on these waiting lists. Let me provide the House with some pretty basic historical facts. As I have said, it was the previous government that ripped $100 million a year of funding from public dental programs, leading to an explosion in waiting lists. The member for North Sydney says he cares for those people having to wait too long for dental care, but it is something that, when he sat on this side of the House for 11 years, he did not care sufficiently about to convince his government to do anything to fix the problem. And now he still offers nothing to fix the problem, instead engaging in the tired old blame game, saying it is simply the states’ fault and ignoring the history of the government he was a part of. It is only the Rudd government, now having come to office, that is working to address the public dental waiting lists through our $290 million investment in the Commonwealth Dental Health Program alongside our $490 million investment in our kids’ teeth through the Medicare Teen Dental Program.

We now understand, as of today, that the opposition is also planning to disallow the closure of the former government’s failed chronic disease dental program. As I have said in this House before, we do acknowledge that some people got help from that program if they could navigate the complex referral process and the red tape, but many, many people—often the most needy in the community—did not get help and it was not a targeted program. You could be assisted if you had a particular chronic disease in particular circumstances, but you could not be assisted if you had poor teeth simply because of your poverty, simply because you did not have proper health care, you did not have early enough dental care, you did not have a good diet—any range of these problems that can cause severe oral health difficulties would not qualify you for assistance. For example, over the four years to 30 April 2008, in the whole of the Northern Territory no services at all were provided to children and young adults aged up to 24 years. In South Australia over the same four years, no services at all were provided to children up to the age of 14—zero. This means, as I have noted before, that any children born in the Northern Territory or South Australia during the entire life of the Howard government did not get any assistance for their dental care during the life of that government. And now we have the opposition saying that we are not doing enough or that they want us to continue their program as well as invest our new $780 million. It really is pretty cheeky, I have to say.

In total, over the four years to 30 April 2008, the Howard government’s failed scheme will have spent less than $50 million compared to the $780 million that the Rudd government is investing in dental health. In disallowing the closure of the failed chronic disease program, the opposition will be opposing the savings measures that will help pay for the Rudd government’s better targeted programs. We think this is thoughtless, reactionary opposition. It is opposition for opposition’s sake. We see it on dental care, on hospitals, on alcohol and on unfair tax slugs like the Medicare levy surcharge. The opposition is following a clear pattern: do nothing for 11 years and then attack the new government for pursuing the path of reform. The Liberal Party has until the end of the month to choose between responsible economic management and responsible health policy and short-term, cheap politics. I hope that they will make the right choice.

In conclusion, the Rudd government is delivering on its election commitment and making a $780 million investment in Australia’s dental health, an investment in preventative care for our kids and treatments for the most needy in the community. It demonstrates that the Rudd government can make the tough decisions to close down ill-targeted programs which have demonstrably failed and to replace them with targeted programs that help more Australians and those most in need, such as pensioners and concession card holders.

The programs demonstrate the Rudd government’s determination to address the immediate pressures on Australia’s dental health system and the 650,000 people on public dental waiting lists who are the Howard government’s sad legacy, and they demonstrate the Rudd government’s commitment to building for Australia’s future by encouraging our teenagers to develop good dental habits and to preserve their dental health for the long term. Together, these programs will attack the sorry state of dental health in Australia and they mark the start of a new era in dental care and preventative health.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.