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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 11805


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (13:16): I welcome the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012, a further instalment of the Labor government's health reform program, a policy reform effort that has undertaken the difficult work of rethinking, planning and funding in relation to a number of blind spots in Australia's health system. Of course, the cornerstone of our health system is Medicare, one of the great and defining features of Australia's fundamentally egalitarian approach when it comes to ensuring the provision of high-quality universal public goods in the areas of health, education and the environment. These are the things we all share. These are the things that underwrite social equality and social cohesion in Australia and are the core features of our egalitarian ethos.

But how do we measure the enormous social and economic value of Medicare? Just consider that in Australia we all—each and every one of us—have access to free, comprehensive public hospital care through a system that costs our public purse half as much, as a proportion of GDP, as the United States pays for a health system in which one in six uninsured Americans does not have straightforward access to health and hospital care. But our public health system can be better still, and making those improvements is a distinctively Labor project. It started with Medicare. It continues today. That is why this Labor government has increased the federal contribution to public hospitals by 50 per cent. That is why this government's $4.1 billion dental healthcare package is now introduced to address one of the shortcomings of our system—namely the fact that the public funding and availability of dental health care has not matched the level and function of public funding for primary and hospital health care. The inconsistency of that situation is something Labor has sought to address for some time, and that is why these reforms are particularly welcome.

In addition to the compelling equity arguments for improving the publicly funded provision of dental health care, there are compelling preventative and health cost arguments. We know that children who reach adulthood with healthy teeth are more likely to keep and maintain good oral health as they get older, and we know that good oral health is in turn strongly correlated with better general health. For older Australians, poor oral health can contribute directly to a number of serious health complications—and indeed bad teeth almost always lead to bad nutrition, which again compromises one's health. By ensuring that younger and older Australians, especially those from lower income households, have the ability to receive essential dental treatment, we are not only improving the health of millions of people; we are also implementing a profound preventative health measure, one that will protect individuals from the sometimes terrible consequences of bad dental health and that will create significant health savings in doing so.

The government's proposed six-year dental health reform package that we debate here today includes $2.7 million to support dental care for around 3.4 million Australian children under the dental care for kids program; $1.3 billion for around 1.4 million additional services for adults on low incomes, including pensioners and concession card holders and those with special health needs; and $225 million to be allocated to improving dental services, both in terms of infrastructure and workforce, in outer metropolitan, regional, rural and remote areas. And of course it has to be remembered that this package builds upon, and is in addition to, the $515 million investment made in the 2012-13 budget to fund a blitz on public dental waiting lists from 1 January 2013.

The new dental health care for kids program, called, appropriately, Grow Up Smiling, stands to benefit up to 13,700 children in my electorate of Fremantle. It means that, from 2014, eligible families will be able to receive dental treatment to the value of $1,000 per child over a two-year period from the time they turn two and until they turn 18. They will be able to visit a dentist and use their Medicare card to do so. I know that, at a time when cost of living in WA is a concern for many families, there is an understandable risk that parents might delay regular dental checks or basic dental maintenance as a result of pressures on the household budget. This reform will mean that parents are not put in that situation and their children can get the basic dental health care they should have when they are young, which will go a long way to setting them up for strong teeth and gums into adulthood.

In conclusion, I want to commend the Minister for Health, her department and her staff for the development of this well-targeted and carefully funded dental healthcare reform package. It represents a change that brings the public funding and accessibility of dental care into much better alignment with the principles on which Australia's general healthcare system, Medicare, operates, and it will mean greater quality of life for younger and older Australians, and both fewer health problems and lower health costs as a result of the problems that poor dental health can create.