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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11543


Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (11:45): I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. The coalition do support an investment in dental health; however, we have real concerns about the way the government is going to administer this bill should it pass the parliament and also about the fact that it has already announced that it is going to close the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, the CDDS, effective on 30 November this year while the replacement scheme is not due to commence until 2014. It appears that this government is trying to yet again find a savings measure during this financial year to deliver some fictitious or thinly veiled surplus next year.

The closure of the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme really does concern me. The scheme was introduced by the coalition—in fact, by the now Leader of the Opposition when he was the health minister. I know from discussions with my constituency that many people on low incomes and means will not be able to afford any other dental services without the scheme we introduced when we were in government. They have very real concerns, and I will outline a few of those in my contribution.

We do support investment in dental health, but the problem we have is the intent of this bill and the fact it is going to leave a gap between November this year and 2014 in any scheme that will support families and people, particularly those with chronic diseases, who have already received and need dental services. The other aspect of it is that children will lose access to treatment on 30 November this year with the closure of the CDDS. This is a real concern. Not only people with chronic health issues but also many children will lose access to it.

I want to outline for the benefit of the House a couple of examples that have come to my notice in my constituency. I have had many people very alarmed about the closure of this scheme. They have already been advised by their dental service that they will no longer be able to access the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. A constituent in Nanango needs major dental work. He is a 49-year-old disability pensioner who has been on the disability pension for some 16 years. He is currently suffering from abscesses and bleeding of the gums and is in serious pain. On 14 September this year he made an appointment to see his general practitioner. His local GP told him that the dental scheme was cancelled in early September this year and nothing would be available to him until 2014, notwithstanding the condition he is in and the very important reason why he needs access to dental services—he is a disability pensioner. My constituent is investigating other options for financing the dental work himself. I can assure you—and I hope members on both sides of this House would understand—that the ability for anyone on a disability pension to access dental services and pay for them is very limited. This constituent has accessed the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme because of his need for dental work, and without continuing dental work his whole health will deteriorate.

Another couple who live in Tara in my constituency have received a letter from their dentist to say that the dental benefits scheme is being scrapped. The wife has a litany of dental problems and is also legally blind and hearing impaired and needs both her knees operated on. She is not in good health: she is legally blind and hearing impaired. The couple relied on this dental scheme for their dental services for the benefit of their health, because—as the scheme that was introduced by the Howard government, when Tony Abbott was health minister, says—it is Medicare funded for a chronic disease dental scheme, for people who need this for a chronic health reason to be able to access the service to get that dental work done, because not having that work done is going to be very detrimental to their overall health. There is nothing—nothing—to replace access to a dental service for this couple who live in Tara, particularly the lady, who is legally blind and hearing impaired.

I have received another email from a Gordonbrook constituent on 3 October, only a few days ago. These are quotes, and these are constituents who write to me, email me or phone me and let me know their situation. They are not examples that I am making up. These are actual examples of constituents who have very real concerns. They have been accessing the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme but are going to lose that access as a result of what this government is doing in its approach to try and identify, through a savings measure, a scheme that has worked well. The government has no plans to put in another one until 2014. I quote from this email:

I am 65 years of age, and was diagnosed with diabetes 15 years ago, with complications of tooth decay and gum disease. During recent years, with the support of my doctor and dentist, I have received considerable help under the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme—

the scheme introduced by the coalition when Tony Abbott, now the Leader of the Opposition—was health minister. I go on:

The recent decision by the government to end the Scheme came as a shock. Would you please support the retention of the Medicare Dental Scheme after 30 November this year?

He ends his email by saying, 'Thank you for listening.' I can assure the House that I am listening to my constituents. The coalition is listening to the broad range of people out there who have gained considerable health benefits by being able to access the Medicare-funded Chronic Disease Dental Scheme that this government wants to scrap, with no plans to put anything in place until 2014. It is time that the government listened to emails such as this one from this constituent from Gordonbrook or the couple from Tara or the man from the Nanango who is on a disability pension—all within my constituency. I know members of this side of the House have examples—numerous examples—from their own constituents. I am sure the government members would be hearing from their own constituents who have examples like that with these people who have chronic health issues to deal with, who do need dental work and who—as it has been up until it was announced that it would be scrapped in September this year—have been able to access that dental work through the Medicare-funded Chronic Disease Dental Scheme.

One of the other concerns that are related to dental health is the access to rural health services for health and wellbeing of people living in rural and remote Australia. Recently, Humphreys and Wakerman from Monash University and the Centre for Remote Health in Alice Springs, a joint centre of Flinders University and Charles Darwin University, published a discussion paper entitled 'Primary health care in rural and remote Australia: achieving equity of access and outcomes through national reform'. What they found in that report is alarming. This is a university study. It is not a political party; it is a university study by credible universities and professors. They found that rural and remote Australians have a life expectancy of up to seven years less than their city cousins. The population that they described in rural and remote—as described in the discussion paper—is one-third of the total population of Australia. That is about seven million people, covering something like 7.5 million square kilometres of the land mass of Australia. They have poorer health outcomes due merely to their geographic location.

Recently on the ABC there was a report which should also send alarm bells through the halls of this parliament. It concerned the outback treatment of oral health—the TOOTH trial program that the Royal Flying Doctor Service is conducting in rural New South Wales. A dentist who is part of that program is looking at the dental health of people in north-western New South Wales and what he said should sound alarm bells every hour of every day in this place. He said the dental health that he had seen in rural Australia, where he was operating, was worse than he had seen in third world countries.

Using the examples of three constituents in my electorate using the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which was introduced by the Howard government, that is why the coalition has introduced a disallowance motion to ensure that we can see the continuation of access to a dental scheme. We would like to work with the government to refine the dental health scheme; it is not as though we oppose it. We support access to a dental health service for those who can least afford it where, without that dental work, it will have a detrimental effect on their health.

The work done by Monash University, the Centre for Remote Health in Alice Springs and at Flinders University, or The Outback Oral Treatment and Health Program by the Royal Flying Doctor Service and work they have done with dentists in that program, demonstrates to me—and it should demonstrate adequately to this government—that it is wrong to end a scheme that is still bringing benefits, particularly better health outcomes, for those who cannot afford access to dental services. Without that access there will be detrimental effects to their health. It means they will most likely end up on the health budget through Medicare because their health will deteriorate without access to the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme for their teeth.

For too long, in many ways, we have looked through the prism of Medicare to address the health needs of people. I acknowledge, too, that for too long dental services were not included in Medicare. I know that state governments have a public scheme. The problem for those constituents of mine who I have just described is that there is a 650,000-long waiting list to gain access to the public scheme, which I understand some doctors have suggested to my constituents they should try to do. Are they going to join a queue of 650,000 people because the government cancels this very successful scheme without any plans to introduce a new one until 2014?

I say to the government: listen to the examples that I have brought to the attention of the chamber. Listen to the people out there who desperately need dental health to be addressed through a Medicare-funded program. We will work with you to make sure we can refine the current scheme. We are committed to that. But please, do not leave people out on a limb without any access for the next 15 to 18 months, probably closer to two years, which appears to be the government's approach. What this will mean is that we will move a disallowance for the closure of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme to protect those patients who otherwise would have to go without treatment for at least 19 months for adults and 13 months for children until Labor's proposed alternatives are due to commence.