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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4881


Mr WYATT (Hasluck) (11:29): I rise to speak in support of the Health Insurance (Dental Services) Bill 2012. I hold my colleague from Hindmarsh in high regard. However, I do not agree with the tenets of some of the points that he makes in terms of accountability. We have a profession that has been committed to improving the health outcomes of Australians. It does not matter where they work. I know many through various avenues and I know their commitment is extremely strong. If people take taxpayers' money and use it in a way that is not prescribed in legislation, regulation or criteria for that funding, then I have no problems with their having to repay it. But I have an issue when we make statements in this chamber that are global in context but are hypocritical in the sense of applied uniformity across various areas of government. That ranges from members of this parliament through to the pensioner that was referred to. Of course, we all see people who have issues with the way in which government services are provided and the way in which they are charged. But in this instance a profession has been brought into a model in which the administrative requirements are onerous insofar as the workload that they have in the provision of dental treatment. Sometimes it is easy, out of an audit, to take a sledgehammer approach instead of an approach that would consider each of the individual aspects that relate to a perceived rorting of a system.

The bill that is proposed by the shadow minister, the member for Dickson, is designed in the Gillard government's vindictive pursuit of dentists who have provided treatment to the neediest Australians under the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. The bill requires the minister for health, in conjunction with such other ministers as may be necessary, to redress past and future inequalities that arise from the operation of subsection 10(2) of the Health Insurance (Dental Services) Determination 2007. How often do we hear, across the history of legislation, that we need to make technical amendments because, although the intention of a piece of legislation is honourable, the processes required for its administration has teething problems? During that period of teething problems, mistakes are made. I know from constituents who come into my office that there are often issues that arise because legislation has not been understood. They have been penalised, they have received a letter from a government agency and we have advocated, through the agency or through the relevant minister, for consideration to be given to those specific issues. Often they are addressed and they are often remedied, except those in circumstances where they have rorted and it is demonstrated that they have rorted. Eighty per cent of dentists have not deliberately rorted a system that is providing health care to those who are in need.

The member for Hindmarsh mentioned millionaires being recipients. I do not want to enter into a class war. This is about all Australians. This is about accessing services that can prevent the onset of chronic conditions because of poor dental health. Have a look inside the mouth of somebody who does not access a dentist and you will find the origins of chronic diseases that will cost much more to the health system in the longer term. In those circumstances the impact is far greater, and therefore I find it fascinating that we would pursue this end in terms of government action to claw back $21 million. What they should be doing is looking at each individual case. If there is rorting, then deal with those who rort. Where there is a genuine mistake because of an understanding—not a lack of understanding—of the processes, then we should give due diligence and consideration to ensure that we keep dentists engaged in the delivery of services to those who have the greatest need.

I often hear ministers in the main chamber talk about 'battling families' and how Labor is committed to providing services to those who have the greatest need. I have heard them say that millionaires should not receive funding for some of the programs. But I would hate to see a dental health service that has every intention of providing beneficial outcomes for the health of every Australian diminished because government is proposing to take a sledgehammer approach. I participated in the whole health reform. That was about no blame. That was about shifting the blame game and looking at practical approaches to the health needs of Australians where there is a continuous, seamless flow between each of the sectors in order for health to be provided.

The Health Insurance (Dental Services) Bill would seek an end to the injustice Labor appears determined to inflict upon the nation's dentists and dental professionals. The bill will require the minister to halt demands for repayment that Medicare is issuing to hundreds of dentists for a technical breach of the law.

Dentists are facing demands to repay all Medicare benefits they have received, despite having provided full courses of treatment. If I take the proposition by the member for Hindmarsh about rorting or that a misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge should be applied in this instance, then let me share with you something that I listened to with great interest on a radio station in Western Australia. Under the BER program, where subcontractors to builders were not receiving their payments, they discovered when they approached the Commonwealth department responsible was that the companies had submitted affidavits saying that they had paid their subcontractors when in fact they had not. Let me also say that those agencies are not prepared to follow through with those breaches that are deliberative and are not prepared to tackle an issue that is absolutely wrong and has a stench to it. Yet, with dentists, we are prepared to make sure that they repay for services provided.

If we damage this scheme and damage the capacity for people to access services that will make a difference to their health, then oral and dental infections will increase. People's capacity to access dental services will be problematic. If I were one of those dentists affected, I would be less likely to want to play ball and be part of a Commonwealth program, not trusting a government, because 85 per cent of dental services are rendered by private dentists who service about 12 million Australians annually. Seven million of the other 10 million are eligible for public dental care, but what is received is approximately 1.5 million occasions of service annually. We should not diminish the need. We should really out of an audit and, having been involved with audits, what you do is you go to the crux of the problem and look at the issues. Do not apply a uniform approach that damages.

If this government is serious about meeting the needs of the battlers, then do not punish if there are mistakes that are genuine. Work with the individuals, remedy the problem, ensure the continuity of dental care that reduces the long-term impact on the health of individuals.

I certainly hope that the minister will redress what is required and make the technical amendments so that we can have a strong and vibrant program that enables ordinary families, ordinary Australians, to access the health care that they need through their dentists and in concert with their GPs; and that the care plans required are a step that, if that is problematic, then it is remedied. They are given the encouragement and support to ensure that that occurs.

I support the proposed bill and hope that government considers the impact of any decision which will be detrimental to all of those who are in need of dental health treatment; that the approach that they are taking will be reconsidered; and that each dentists is considered on a case-by-case basis so that we have a strong, viable program that is provided and accorded to all of those who have a need.