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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 12002

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (18:21): I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. Let me start by saying that I support investment in dental care for those who are suffering from chronic disease. I also support investment in dental care for our children. Australia had a Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, but in late August of this year Labor and the Greens announced that the scheme would end on 30 November, with access to the scheme closing on 7 September. In effect, there was about a month's notice given for when the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme would cease to exist.

The proposed new scheme for adult dental services is scheduled to commence in July 2014, which gives about a 1½ year gap between the closure of the former scheme and the commencement of a new scheme. The bill we are debating here today also seeks to replace the Medicare Teen Dental Plan with the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. This in turn will change the age eligibility for this particular scheme from the current 12 to 17 years to cover children from the age of two to 17 years. The proposed scheme will provide a $1,000 cap benefit to children over a two-year period. However, for all the supposed changes there is still no schedule of services, fees and details of how this new $2.7 billion scheme will be funded. Essentially, Labor is intending to implement a scheme without allowing for the opportunity to critique or view the details about how it will be funded or rolled out.

This scheme forms part of Labor's new dental proposal but it comes with a $4.1 billion price tag that at this stage is unfunded. Members of the Australian community are sick of being told by this government that it is introducing all these grand plans without there being the appropriate funding to back up those claims. However, aside from these very worrying issues the coalition does not oppose the intent of the bill. Continued investment in our dental system is critical to our development but we must all develop our dental system to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable in our community are being taken care of whilst making sure we have an efficient and fair system. So it is understandable that the coalition is highly concerned that Labor and the Greens have decided to take away the successful Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme which has helped thousands of Australians.

We all know that a trip to the dentist is not always the most pleasant experience for each of us at any given time and, particularly for some of our children, it can be quite a traumatic experience.

However, for some people in our community, it is something that they desperately need. They need to go to their dentist because they need urgent dental help. They are particularly those Australians with chronic diseases, who require dental work to ensure that they have the best chance of maintaining their physical health at the best level they possibly can.

Many of these people have utilised the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which provides them with $4,250 in Medicare dental benefits over two years. Under the scheme there have been approximately 20 million services provided to over one million patients since 2007, including many children. This is an outstanding number and is a credit to the lasting legacy left by the Howard government. Yet Labor today is proposing to take away this great scheme, to the detriment of thousands of Australians.

The Leader of the Opposition introduced this scheme when he was the health minister in the Howard government. It is because of the Leader of the Opposition that many people with chronic disease can get the dental work that they need. In the face of the success that the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme has had, it appears that the government is attacking the scheme simply out of pure political motivation. This is a great shame because it truly is a scheme that has benefitted thousands of Australians and could continue to do so. Yet, since 7 September, this scheme has not been providing any new services. As I have indicated before, the scheme is set to shut down on 30 November.

This is where the shortcomings of Labor's policy become apparent. If this bill were passed and Labor is allowed to close the scheme, then those children who have a chronic disease and currently benefit from the assistance that this scheme provides will have to have their often complex dental treatment wait for 13 months until the new scheme proposed by the bill begins. This is a significant amount of time for anyone to have to wait to get proper dental help.

It is not just the children under this scheme who will be disadvantaged by having their access to proper dental work limited, as the adults who utilise the scheme will have to wait even longer to get access to the dental services that they require. The government instead has announced that it will provide the states and territories with $1.3 billion for public dental services, but those patients who want access to those services will have to wait until July 2014 before the funding commences. And, like the funding I mentioned before, this commitment remains unfunded at this point of time.

However, for all this talk of new schemes coming into place at different time intervals, it is all dependent on whether the government has the will to follow through on its word to fund them. This new system for adults will only be able to provide 1.4 million additional services over six years—and this is the admission of the health minister. Compare that with the service provision of the former scheme, which had seven million services in the last financial year alone. Labor's new system is well below the benchmark set by the Howard government. It just goes to show which side is more serious about delivering dental services.

Where do these child and adult patients go in the respective 13- or 19-month interim period? They have one of two choices. The first is to wait until the new scheme comes along and forgo any treatment until that time. The second is to place their name on the 650,000-plus public dental waiting list. This is an unacceptable dichotomy for any person with chronic disease, let alone any Australian.

The reality is that many people who utilise the current scheme cannot afford the dental treatment they need, and that is why they depend on it. For instance, concession card holders accounted for 80 per cent of services under the current scheme. Labor is asking people with a chronic condition to essentially put their road to recovery on hold because it has not been able yet to string together the money to fund this new system. It has not even offered to extend the current system to these people so that they can receive treatment in the interim period whilst the government, quite frankly, gets its act together.

It should also be noted that the $225 million that forms the proposal for the development of dental infrastructure through applications to the flexible grants program will not be available until 2014, with the benefits not set to come through until some years after that. All in all, if you have a scheme which is unfunded and provides service gaps, there is obviously much room for improvement.

The coalition in the past has committed—and I have heard the member for Dickson say this numerous times—to negotiate with the government on how best to refine the current scheme, including how to review the process for providing certain high-cost items. We have heard members opposite claim that the current scheme is rife with rorting. They also claim that there have been cost blowouts, even though the average amount that has been claimed under the scheme is $1,716 per patient, which is well below the allowable maximum. If these claims were true, then would it not make sense to identify the areas that need adjustment and make the necessary changes to them rather than completely scrap a system which is doing a very good job for Australians?

Investment in our dental health system is something that we need and I support such an investment. I do, however, have a huge issue with the problems that will come as a result of this bill and the government's new dental proposals, some of which include disallowing children who are currently benefiting under the current scheme to access those benefits until the new scheme comes into force, and that the $2.7 billion needed for it remains unfunded. Investment in our dental health system must be taken seriously and not be subjected to the political pointscoring that the government is only too willing to engage in. The Australian community deserves the detail on how this will be implemented and how the government will find the funds to do so. We must not underestimate the importance of dental health as part of maintaining our physical wellbeing. It would be disappointing to see people with chronic disease having to either go without or be placed on a waiting list to access dental services because of this Labor government, but I suppose that, as we wait for the details of how this scheme will be funded, we must also wait for the services that it will provide.