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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 12010

Mr FRYDENBERG (Kooyong) (18:58): I congratulate my colleague the member for Forde on that excellent speech and very thoughtful presentation about an important issue that concerns everybody in this House: the Dental Benefits Amendments Bill 2012. The coalition has sought to disallow the government's proposals not because we do not support further investment in dental health, because we do; not because we do not appreciate the need for reform to the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, because we do; and not because we do not appreciate the value of Medicare funded dental treatment, because we do—but because this $4.1 billion dental program announced by the Labor Party is (a) unfunded and (b) is going to leave many patients who are receiving or would have received treatment under the CDDS out in the cold.

The government's new scheme does not commence until 2014—January 2014 for children aged two to 17 and July 2014 for adults. New patients to the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme will be unable to access services after 7 September this year. The Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme will be closed from 30 November this year. This means that adults with dental problems will go without services for nearly 19 months and children for 13 months. This is just unacceptable. But do not take my word for it, I will read you a release from the Federal President of the Australian Dental Association from September this year. It called this policy short-sighted and stated:

… the mode of closure of the CDDS has given little consideration to the many patients currently receiving treatment.

…   …   …

… many patients currently accepted into the CDDS will be unable to complete their course of treatment by the closure date of 30 November 2012.

'Providing patients with only 12 weeks to complete treatment demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about dental care by the Australia government' …

They are not my words. They are not the words of the coalition leader; they are the words of the Federal President of the Australian Dental Association. The release goes on to state:

The ADA believes that at the present time too much attention has been given to achieving budgetary savings rather than focusing on maintaining government funded dental care before the implementation of the new programmes.

This is unacceptable. I have been contacted by constituents, like many of my colleagues on this side of the House, who also feel strongly about this issue and are worried about their inability to access sufficient and subsidised dental care. The shadow minister for health, the member for Dickson, spoke eloquently in the parliament on this issue, detailing how he was contacted by one of his constituents, a pensioner on disability support, who is struggling with throat cancer. Because of the radiation treatment this gentleman was receiving, his body cannot produce the saliva to properly open his jaw. This requires specific and intensive fluoride treatment. The cost of major surgery is prohibitive at over $50,000, leaving this person to require regular treatment and dental visits. But with the closure of the CDDS, this subsidised treatment will not be available. Who knows what this man will do?

The Minister for Health, who is now in this chamber, should answer that question instead of talking. She should listen to the coalition's enlightened concerns about this policy. This case, raised by the member for Dickson, must be one of thousands of cases across this country of people in need who will be denied care simply because this Gillard government have mismanaged the economy to such an extent that they are now desperate to cut essential services in a vain attempt to reach a budget surplus next year, which we know they will not reach. In the last five years, they have delivered the biggest budget deficits in the history of the Commonwealth.

Another major concern for the opposition is that this government is seeking to rush this bill before parliament—which, by the way, will not come into effect until 2014—without providing the schedule of services and fees that will apply. How can we proceed without that full information? The government's plan is to provide a $1,000 capped benefit over two years to eligible children under this new scheme.

When it comes to adults, funding will be directed towards state governments, with services for adults no longer carrying on via private dentists under Medicare. There is also, under the government's proposal, more than $200 million for dental infrastructure, also not to take effect until 2014. Such spending commitments may be all well and good for those who propose them, but if the money is not available then this is not the best outcome for the Australian people.

The truth is that the only reason this government and this health minister want to abandon the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is that it was a creation of the Howard government. It was established by the current Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Tony Abbott, as part of his successful tenure as health minister. Despite the government's claims of expenditure blow-outs, figures released by the Department of Health and Ageing show that the average claim per patient is $1,716, significantly below the allowable $4,250. What is more, 80 per cent of the more than 20 million services given to more than one million patients under the CDDS have been provided to concession card holders. These are the people with lower incomes in our community.

In conclusion—and the Minister for Health, who is now in the chamber, should listen to this—we have 650,000 people on public dental waiting lists, 250,000 of whom are children. Clearly, more needs to be done. But the government's proposal is not the answer. In a desperate attempt to balance the books, they are short-changing Australians—Australians who are most in need: Australians with chronic diseases. People young and old in this country will now be unable to access subsidised dental services for months on end—up to 19 months for adults—due to the imminent closure of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. This government must do better. And when we, the coalition, get our chance in government, we will do better. The sooner that happens, the better it will be for all Australians.