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Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Page: 6209

Mr LYONS (Bass) (16:43): I am reminded of my growing up, which was in the fifties. We did not have reticulated water; I remember we had tank water. Amongst the people in my neighbourhood there were lots of false teeth and teeth that were not too good.

An honourable member interjecting

Mr LYONS: Yes, my front ones are gone, but they were knocked out playing footy. The interesting thing is that we do have, on the whole, much better teeth now than we used to have. I know that our society is better, we are a healthy people, and we actually live longer. Part of the reason is that we have much better teeth as a result of fluoride. I notice that the Queensland government have dropped the requirement to have fluoride in reticulated water, which is to the detriment of the people of Queensland, and I hope they rectify that.

I rise to add my remarks to the report, Bridging the dental gap, of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing. In this inquiry the committee considered: demand for dental services across Australia and issues associated with waiting lists; the mix and coverage of dental services supported by state and territory governments, and the Australian Government; availability and affordability of dental services for people with special dental health needs; availability and affordability of dental services for people living in metropolitan, regional, rural and remote locations; the coordination of dental services between the two tiers of government and with privately funded dental services; and workforce issues relevant to the provision of dental services.

Improving dental health will help relieve the pressure on hospitals. I know this from my personal experience through being in the health system in Tasmania for 20-odd years. A number of cases came along that had to get taken into theatre for what were, in fact, dental problems. It does show that we are not on top of this issue. As I said, improving dental health will help relieve the pressure on hospitals and broader health systems, which is why this inquiry is so important. We know that one in five of our lowest income earners have not been to the dentist for over five years, if ever. This is a serious concern. Poor dental health has wide-ranging impacts on speech, sleep and eating.

The committee heard from a number of parties who stated that there are many groups of people in Australia who are struggling to receive adequate dental care. This can lead to a range of poor dental health outcomes which often result in patients requiring more extensive medical treatment. This includes low-income earners, the elderly, people living with a disability, those living in regional and rural areas of Australia, and homeless and Indigenous Australians. Because low-income earners are less likely to receive preventative care they are more likely to have extensive treatment, for example, tooth extraction rather than fillings. The reasons for the increased risk of oral disease in these populations are complex, but are generally associated with poor visiting patterns to dental and oral health services. For some, this may be indicative of poor availability of dental services outside metropolitan centres thus making access difficult. For others, a significant barrier may be the cost of accessing services.

The committee heard evidence that public dental waiting lists also represent a barrier to care, with eligible patients often unable to afford access to local services and unable to access services elsewhere. Treatments through the public health system usually focus on providing emergency treatments rather than preventative or restorative services. Even so, the demand for limited public dental services is such that there are significant waiting lists in all states and territories with the average waiting time of 27 months. For adults who are not eligible for access to public dental services, treatment is only available through the private system.

The Australian government understands the importance of timely access to affordable, high-quality, oral health care for all Australians, and in particular for low-income earners and disadvantaged people. The government knows that many Australians on low incomes miss out on access to dental care, and a number of those missing out are children.

On 29 August 2012, the government announced the landmark $4.1 billion dental reform package. This package will build a fairer dental system. The package includes $2.7 billion for Grow Up Smiling, a children's dental scheme that will start on 1 January 2014; $1.3 billion to states and territories from 1 July 2014 to expand services for adults in the public system; and a $225 million flexible grants program beginning from 2014 to provide dental infrastructure, both capital and workforce, in outer metropolitan, rural and regional areas. The government allocated $5.5 million to Tasmania in 2013-14 to cut the public dental waiting lists, which will make a real difference for Tasmanians and people with dental concerns.

The committee heard that a highly skilled health workforce is critical to the backbone of the health system. Projects such as the construction of a new purpose-built clinical training facility in Launceston with six additional dental chairs is fantastic for Northern Tasmania. Work is currently underway on the $4 million extension to the public dental services in Kelham Street, Launceston, to allow for dental student work placements in our region. This will be a state-of-the-art facility which is vital for Northern Tasmania.

The importance of good dental and oral health to general health and wellbeing is well recognised. There are well established associations between poor dental and oral health and acute or chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Furthermore, the pain associated with poor dental and oral health, coupled with social anxieties about appearance and the avoidance of certain foods, can impact significantly on the quality of life.

This inquiry has certainly been worth while. I encourage MPs and senators to read the report and the recommendations from this committee. I was particularly impressed by the service provided in the Dubbo area. There was a fantastic service training new doctors and also providing a private clinic, which I think is fantastic. It was my first trip to Dubbo and I was very impressed by the service provided in that area.

In closing, I wish to thank all those who took the time to put in submissions and appear before the committee. I also thank my fellow committee members and, in particular, the secretariat for the valuable work they provided.

Debate adjourned.