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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 11803

Mr HUNT (Flinders) (13:07): Let me begin by putting the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012 in context. This bill is part of a broader issue facing the government. The government is desperately trying to put its budget back into surplus. We are the great supporters and advocates of that goal because there is a huge pressure on public borrowing, but there is a question of wisdom as to the way in which we do things. What we see here, in my view and in our view, is that this bill and this process abolishes a successful scheme and replaces it with one where the architecture, the design and the human impacts are under deep question. We will not stand in the way because we do not believe that there should be no coverage, but we are about to face a major human impact where real people will suffer real consequences as a result of what is effectively the creation of an 18-month gap for many Australians who suffered deep, chronic pain and from deep, chronic dental issues.

I really want to deal with this bill in two steps: firstly, the human consequences to people within my own electorate of this bill, if it is passed in its current form, and that is why we saw the coalition move a disallowance in terms of the suspension of the current dental scheme and why we believe that it is important to have a bridge, if not a complete continuation, of what we are proposing; and, secondly, I want to deal with the bill itself.

Let me focus on an approach from two parents in my electorate. Corinella residents Richard and Carol Casbolt have written to me. Their view was very simply and eloquently expressed. They set out that their daughter Danielle has a real risk of further health deterioration as a consequence of the closure of the current Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which is part and parcel of this package. I cannot believe that the government would intend these consequences but, having lived through the Home Insulation Program, I know there is an issue of wilful or constructive blindness where people simply turn a blind eye to consequences which, while they would not want them to happen, they certainly will not stand in the way of them occurring. The letter from Mr and Mrs Casbolt proceeds in this way. Speaking of Danielle, they say:

Our daughter who suffers from Schizophrenia has to take a number of tablets that affect her bones and teeth requiring a number of visits to the dentist for fillings and teeth removal. At times the visits have cost her over $500 per time. Where to now?

That is the end of the quote but, sadly, not the end of the story. The story of Danielle, the story of Richard and Carol Casbolt, her parents, is the human face of what this package of measures will lead to as an unintended but, sadly, inevitable consequence. It is a form of constructive policy negligence. That is why we sought, through the member for Dickson's motion, to ensure that the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme was not closed down, that at the very least there was a bridge until the opening of the government's own scheme in 2014. So this is a genuine concern.

Let me similarly talk about the fact that Richard Casbolt has spoken to my office and said that the family knows of many other Bass Coast residents are likely to be similarly affected by the closure of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. So there are real human consequences as a result of this bill.

We can argue about the final design but I think it is unarguable that there is likely to be a major gap, which is upon us, until 2014 for people who have genuine, chronic pain and suffering. It amazes me that this parliament is about to embark upon a process that will lead to people with genuine suffering having their situations compounded. That is not who we are; that is not what we intend to be, but it is the inevitable consequence if the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is pulled away at the same time as a replacement scheme is deferred until 2014.

Let me go further into the current situation. The Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme was introduced by the former coalition government. The current Leader of the Opposition was its effective architect, overseer and introducer. It provides up to $4,250 in Medicare dental benefits over two years for eligible patients with a chronic health condition. The government has said it will replace this scheme with its own dental scheme but its proposal for adults does not begin until 1 July 2014. So what does Danielle Casbolt do in the meantime? These questions are being faced by families not just in the seat of Flinders, not just in the Bass Coast Shire, but around the country, and the many people who are most ill-equipped to deal with the problem are going to face issues relating to the withdrawal of this scheme. I do not think what is occurring here is right. We, of course, will not stand in the way of a replacement scheme and that is why we will not oppose this bill, but we did our best to preserve the current scheme so as there was no gap.

The scheme here will cost about $4.1 billion. If that money goes into the dental health space, it may serve some useful purposes. We do not believe that this scheme is the optimal design, but we also know it is unfunded, so it is a promise made without an ability to pay. In the meantime, tearing away the current support mechanisms will mean real failures for families, pensioners, seniors and young people. It is simply not good enough to deny local residents access to genuinely needed, vital dental treatment. The details of either scheme can be quibbled about, but the gap is completely unacceptable.

Whilst we will not oppose this bill, because to have something is better than to have nothing, we bitterly oppose the creation of a gap in terms of chronic dental health management for those who suffer disease or disability, many of whom are afflicted by mental health conditions or other issues. It seems that the government has inadvertently abandoned many of the neediest in our society. A good scheme is a positive step. Some form of scheme is better than nothing, but the government's actions in taking away the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme are simply unacceptable.