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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 11972

Mr BUCHHOLZ (Wright) (16:14): Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, I acknowledge your new position here in this House. There are people in this place that one tends to model themselves on and there are good men and women in this House. You have displayed statesmanlike qualities, which I have tried to emulate, and I praise you. For your contribution and ongoing contribution to the House, due recognition has been bestowed upon you with your recent election as Deputy Speaker. I acknowledge that as a position well fitted.

I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012 that is currently before the House. The bill makes amendments to the Dental Benefits Act 2008, changes that do not assist people who are in need of dental services right now or those undergoing current treatment plans. This change is designed to give this Labor government its own authored dental scheme. We the coalition would not mind so much if the bill actually improved the scheme that the coalition, under Tony Abbott as the then health minister, presented to the Australian people and that has been delivering dental services ever since.

The member for Banks, the previous speaker, referred in his speech to those people who could least afford dental care. One of the flaws in the bill that is currently before the House is that it punishes the very people he was claiming to represent. This bill in its entirety affects those people who can least afford it. It creates a gap until the proposed government scheme would come in. It leaves a void. No speakers from the other side have mentioned this in their speeches. I think they are not mentioning it because it must be evident that their electorate will be affected by this oversight. This government in its explicit wisdom has chosen to delay the start of the program till 1 January 2014 for children and 1 July for adults but closed the current program on 30 November this year. That is quite a gap, as will be the gaps in the mouths of patients requiring dental treatment right now.

Up until these start dates it will be 13 months for children and 19 months for adults. That is inexcusable in this country when the Treasurer boasts on the floor of this parliament about how wealthy we are, how great the country is fiscally and what strength we have. Dental care will be taken away from a class of people in our community for up to 19 months, depending on their age demographic. The Australian people and the people of Wright, whom I represent, have no choice but to suffer yet again because of this government's hasty policy tactics. These hasty tactics include rushing this bill through the parliament without providing the appropriate details. This does nothing to help this parliament to put into action in this country clean and healthy policies. It only proves this government's contempt of the Australian people.

It is somewhat ironic that we are looking at a health issue and yet the government cannot even exercise healthy methods of policy development. We have a government with such contempt that they have decided it is good policy to close on 30 November this year the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which has provided some 20 million services since 2007. No new patients have been able to access services after 7 September, leaving a 13-month gap in the availability of services—13 months of being left in the dark; 13 months of Nurofen, cold packs and whatever other remedies patients can find to soothe their abscesses, broken teeth and various other dental ailments that children suffer.

Ms Hall: Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to ask the member a question.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Will the member for Wright take a question from the member for Shortland?

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Absolutely.

Ms Hall: Thank you very much. I would like to ask the member for Wright what assistance is available to those people at the moment who do not qualify for the chronic dental health program and how will his government help those people who have been on the waiting list for sometimes in excess of 10 years?

Mr BUCHHOLZ: I thank the member for that question, and I will provide those answers during the course of this address. I will quote the health minister, who states in her news brief on the ALP website:

Labor believes we have a responsibility to ensure Australians who are least able to afford to go the dentist, and particularly children, should be given access to government-subsidised oral health care.

Well, that is great to have that there, but when they say that they should be given access, that should be qualified by saying 'access today'. It is not qualified by saying, 'They will be given access at some point in the future, once we get our fictitious surplus put together, once we go back and try to find the savings in the budget where we have wasted billions of dollars.'

This is the unintended consequence of poor management. This is the unintended consequence when we have families in lower socioeconomic sectors who are being punished under the argument that millionaires have access to this. I actually rang one of the local dentists in my electorate and asked, 'How many millionaires do you have come in and take advantage of the chronic disease scheme?' And he laughed at me. He said: 'You're kidding! Millionaires have their own health insurance. They don't come here to regional Australia to get dentistry work done.'

So the argument that is put up by this government that the changes that are being proposed are to block millionaires from getting access to this is nothing short of farcical. There is no access for children for 13 months, and there is no access for adults for 19 months—and that is shameful. I consider it only fair that the Minister for Health should explain why these children must suffer without dental care for up to 13 months and why adults should suffer for 19 months. Furthermore, how does this government propose to actually deliver on its unfunded 2014 promise? I suggest that it is just because of a blind obsession by this government with a money grab to create the surplus. They are not happy to take food out of the mouth through increased taxes on the Australian public and to take food out of the mouth of mums and dads in my electorate. They are now delivering a cruel blow of putting a bowl of fruit in front of someone with no teeth, who is unable to eat it. Perhaps members on the other side of the House have not had to suffer the pain of going without dental treatment. Perhaps members on the other side of the House should take a Nurofen or a Panadol next time they have an infection and see how long they will last in the absence of dental care under their scheme.

A lady in my electorate—her first name is Erica—who lives on Mount Tamborine called me at nine o'clock one night when I happened to be up there on the hill. She said, 'Scotty, I'm in a heap of pain; can you come round?' So I went around with my chief of staff, who had spent some time as a dental technician. This lady had a mouthful of abscesses. She was in a heap of pain. The very next morning we got her down to the local dentist. We got her elevated through because of her chronic pain. She took a series of antibiotics and then, under the chronic scheme, was able to apply for a set of false teeth, which enabled her to return to some type of healthy eating habits.

After 30 November, Erica will not have access to the chronic dental scheme. I really hope that Nurofen lasts long enough, because for those with chronic dental conditions the loss of $4,250 in dental fees over the two years is going to be a painful experience. We are talking about a scheme that has provided approximately 20 million services to more than one million patients since 2007.

The Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme introduced by the coalition when in government has been an enormous success. Yes, there have been overruns. These overruns have been a result of the number of people taking up this program. It is the only Medicare dental scheme that has provided treatment for adults, and it has been very successful at that. The scheme that was conceived by the current Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, had started by placing the needs of the sick first. And now we have a government that is doing everything it can to increase the sale of Nurofen and Panadol.

Despite claims of its expenditure blowouts the average claim per patient, according to recent figures from the Department of Health and Ageing, is $1,716 per unit—well below the allowable $4,250. It is even more disappointing knowing that the coalition's offer to work with the previous health minister to refine and improve the new scheme, including through a process of providing high-cost items when needed, such as crowns and bridges, was rejected.

Now we move on to the replacement scheme for the national partnership agreement for adult public dental services.

Let me make the very important facts about the current situation facing the dental health system absolutely clear. Under the new scheme, services will no longer be available for adults through private dentists under Medicare. At present we have 650,000 people on the public dental waiting list and 400,000 of those are adults, according to the government's own figures—that is, 400,000 people that this government is going to forget. Even if it does deliver on its funding promise for the state governments, the cutting of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme and the delays in delivering the new commitments are likely to lead to an increase in waiting times for public dental patients. Disturbingly, knowing this, the government continues to maintain its position to close the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. The current scheme has provided approximately 20 million services, including seven million in the last financial year alone, and yet we have a minister who said that the plan will only provide 1.4 additional services over six years, or 20 per cent of what the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme provided last year alone.

The facts speak for themselves. I have done the maths and it just does not add up. Playing politics with the Australian people's health is a dangerous game—a dangerous game for the wellbeing of the Australian people; a dangerous game for the wellbeing of the people of Wright, and I have their best interests at heart. For the record, it is clear to those on this side of the House that the government is creating a gap in treatment for patients in an attempt to deliver on a much promised surplus—the surplus that they would rather invent at the expense of the health and wellbeing of Australian people.

Just before I finish, I want to emphasise the coalition's position on this issue. I state for the record the coalition's clear support and strong investment in dental health in the past. I am explicitly concerned knowing that thousands of children in particular will lose access to treatment on 30 November with the closure of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. That those on the other side of the House believe it to be a sacrifice for the health of Australia's future is a serious matter. The government's actions suggest that it is more about politics than an issue of policy. The government's vague promise that at some time in the future it will provide money to the states and territories for public services is just not good enough—unsurprisingly, it is at some point in the future. There is no caveat on where that money is coming from at some point in the future. There is no mention of what services will be cut on the Australian landscape to provide for that. There is no mention of which existing services will be cancelled, such as those that are already under stress from an interest payment and the federal government having to come up with an extra $6.8 billion a year, an expense that was never in place when the former government left office. Will they cut from the pensioners who can least afford it? They have form on that. Will they cut welfare? They have form on that by putting extra expenses on families by increasing taxes through their electricity bills. This government has gone to great lengths to undermine the scheme because it was established by Tony Abbott, as health minister, and it has been a success in improving access to treatment.

I know for sure that people in my electorate are tired of waiting for good policy from this government. Now those who suffer with chronic dental health problems are literally going to have to suffer pain for a lot longer. I want the Australian people to know, and the people of Wright in particular, that those on this side of the House are doing everything they can to protect their dental health and deliver funded programs.