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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 11999

Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (18:10): On 29 August, the health minister, Tanya Plibersek, and the Greens health spokesperson, Senator Di Natale, announced a $4.1 billion dental program to commence in 2014. In principle, the promise to commit funds to dental health sounds like a good idea; indeed, the coalition strongly supports investment in dental health and does not oppose the intent of the bill. Yet this new dental scheme is just like all the other so-called initiatives of the Gillard government: it might sound okay as a news headline but upon closer inspection it is simply another underfunded initiative set to interrupt efficient community practices and put more pressure on hardworking Australian families. Labor promised a new dental scheme in the 2007 election campaign and yet did not deliver it. Now they expect Australians to trust a promise for 2014. This is yet another example of how adept Labor are at making announcements that only result in disappointment or failed delivery.

One of the key concerns I have is that the Gillard government's dental promise relies on closing the existing Chronic Disease Dental Scheme in November 2012 and yet the replacement schemes are not due to commence until 2014. I would like to reflect on the tremendous success of the existing scheme that was introduced by the coalition when it was in government and when the current opposition leader was the then health minister. What makes the existing scheme so effective and so accessible is that it is the only Medicare dental scheme that provides treatment for adults. In the last five years, approximately 20 million services have been provided to over one million patients. What does the Gillard government expect these Australians or others who need these services to do during that almost two-year gap?

The minister needs to explain what will happen to those who are currently receiving treatment under the existing program. Will these patients be forced to forgo treatment during the gap period? About the time of the introduction of this bill I was contacted by a Mrs Forwood from Mount Riverview in the electorate of Macquarie. Mrs Forwood wrote:

My daughter was accepted in the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme and promised $4,250 from the Government to fix her teeth. The problems she has are through no fault of her own. Shortly after she was accepted into the scheme she found out she was pregnant. She wants to wait until the baby is born until she has the work done on her teeth as she is afraid the dental work will impact on the baby.

Mrs Forwood goes on to say:

My daughter has received a letter from the Government saying that all dental work must be completed by 1st December this year. Her baby is due at the end of February.

After speaking with the department, Mrs Forwood and her daughter Danielle have been advised that there is no way to get access to an extension. Why is the federal government forcing Australians such as Danielle to forgo dental assistance for almost two years? Surely Danielle should not be forced to choose between getting dental treatment before the current scheme expires and protecting the needs of her unborn child.

I suspect that this gap in government-subsidised dental services is just another desperate attempt to reach a budget surplus. Why must the Australian community continue to lose vital services simply because this government have spent wastefully? The actions of this government, as they attempt to rush this bill through parliament, indeed suggest that this is the case. To date, the federal government has yet to provide a schedule of services, fees and details of how the scheme will be funded. Without these details, how can one suitably assess if the new scheme will be more efficient and beneficial to the community? Where is the concrete evidence that it will actually be delivered?

If this bill does not commence until 2014, that is after the next election. Why does the minister insist on rushing the bill through the parliament without making available these critical details for public and parliamentary scrutiny? The approach of the government in this regard suggests that the dental initiative is more about politics than policy. In fact, the Labor government has gone to great lengths to undermine the existing Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme because it was established by Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, when he was health minister, and it has been a success in improving access to treatment.

Putting politics aside, I believe it is absolutely critical that the parliament does scrutinise the details that the government has made available in regard to the proposed scheme. Despite not detailing how the program would be funded, the recent proposal suggests that the amount of services to be provided over the full six years of Labor's scheme is just 20 per cent of what the existing program provided last year alone—just 20 per cent. How can the Gillard government argue that the new scheme will be beneficial for communities when a smaller number of people are set to benefit from the new program?

Furthermore, does the government anticipate longer waiting lists across Australian dental practices in order to accommodate the service gaps that will arise as a result of the new scheme? Already 650,000 people are on public dental waiting lists. Does the minister have any information with regard to how this may blow out while Australians wait for the new scheme? Longer waiting lists in public hospitals will be the direct responsibility of federal Labor.

In addition to longer waiting lists, a considerable lack of investment in the dental workforce and infrastructure, particularly in the public system, will hinder the capacity to deliver the projected number of services, and I can only anticipate that considerably fewer persons will have access to dental services under the new scheme. I understand that within the government's proposal it has allocated $225 million to develop infrastructure, yet the initiative to apply for funding under the flexible grants program for dental infrastructure will not commence, again, until 2014. Therefore, one can assume that projects are unlikely to be completed or provide tangible benefits until some years later. Alarmingly, I suspect that the service gaps that I mentioned previously will be extended beyond the two years, when there will be no federal government dental initiative.

As a result of these concerns, the coalition has moved to disallow the earlier closure of the existing Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. I believe that it is critical that we endeavour to protect patients who will now 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. If we are not successful, or if this motion fails, this will inevitably be another Labor policy disaster, with detrimental consequences to the Australian community and Australian dental practices. It should be noted that 80 per cent of services under the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme have been provided to concession card holders. This suggests that dental services have been predominantly utilised by low-income earners who cannot afford premium care.

At an earlier time I have spoken on the scheme that was introduced by the coalition, and I have a number of dentists who work, particularly in the area of Katoomba in my electorate, with significantly disadvantaged sections of the community. They are deeply concerned about the gap in service that they will be able to provide. Without the existing scheme and during the period where there will be no assistance these people will be forced to go without treatment as they cannot afford private dental services. As a result, they may be added to considerable public waiting lists.

Many Australians have the perception that dentists provide a premium service and, as a result, they do not prioritise going to the dentist as they would, for example, going to a doctor. The expense is perceived to be too high and the services is considered to be inaccessible. By removing the existing scheme for low-income earners the government further builds on this perception and, as a result, further pressure will be placed on Australian dentists who seek to help those who do not have the resources to access dental care under normal circumstances.

The strategy and implementation of Labor's dental scheme is yet another example of how this government is good at making promises yet creates uncertainty about the potential delivery. The Labor government cannot explain how it will fund the new dental program or where existing patients will go during the almost two-year gap when no government services will be available.

In conclusion, the Labor government cannot explain how it will fund the new dental program, but one thing is certain: the dental scheme will further add to the underfunded and poorly delivered programs that this government is known for.