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Wednesday, 18 June 2008
Page: 2674


Senator LUDWIG (Minister for Human Services) (12:30 PM) —I thank those senators who have contributed to the debate, particularly those on our side, who have supported the dental benefit scheme and seen through the election commitment to now. I appreciate their contribution to the debate on the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and related bill. I also, of course, thank the opposition for their support, although I think it is to be qualified with an amendment some time later. I would also like to say, in summing up the debate, that these bills will allow the government to deliver on a key part of its election commitment to improve dental health for working families and address Australia’s dental crisis.

The government has committed something in the order of $780 million over five years for two new dental programs, which have been mentioned in the second reading contributions: the Medicare Teen Dental Plan and the Commonwealth Dental Health Program. Both of these programs are aimed at people who are in the most need of help, many of whom could not afford dental care without these two programs providing that assistance. In addition, the Commonwealth will work with the states and territories and the dental profession particularly to expand the provision of dental care. But the focus is on those in greatest need and the preventative care for eligible teenagers. At those early years it is important to provide that assistance.

These significant commitments will help ease Australia’s dental crisis—because we do have a dental crisis in Australia. It is about trying to end the blame game and start addressing the serious problems in oral health that the Howard government ignored for more than a decade. There are 650,000 people who would attest to the fact that the Howard government ignored their dental issues and allowed the public dental waiting lists to be left to grow to that order.

The passage of these bills will enable the Medicare Teen Dental Plan to commence next month. The government is providing $490 million over five years for the Medicare Teen Dental Plan, and the Commonwealth will provide up to $150 per eligible person towards an annual preventative check for teenagers aged 12 to 17 years in families receiving family tax benefit part A.

I did have the opportunity of listening to the second reading contribution of Senator Allison and those matters that she went to in terms of the administrative complexity. Really, when you look at what this is doing, it is providing the $150 to those families receiving the family tax benefit part A for those teenagers. The way of accessing that will be through one of the agencies within my portfolio. We will work very hard to ensure that, administratively, both the dental profession and the teenagers who will benefit receive a good outcome—and not, like under the Howard years, an outcome of being left to languish on a waiting list.

Teenagers in the same age group receiving youth allowance or Abstudy will also be eligible for the program. There are in the order of 1.1 million teenagers who will be eligible for the Medicare Teen Dental Plan each year. The Medicare Teen Dental Plan will operate as part of the broad Medicare arrangements through a new dental benefits schedule. That will contribute to ensuring that we can deal with it administratively. I can point Senator Allison to these words and say that we will work very  hard to ensure that that dental benefits schedule through the Medicare arrangements will ensure that the burden is where it should be placed—that is, to alleviate the burden rather than create one.

Under the Commonwealth Dental Health Program the Rudd government will be providing an additional $293 million over three years to improve access to public dental services, working in cooperation with the states and territories. I would like to take the opportunity to underscore that remark: it is about working in cooperation with the states and territories. It is about ending the blame game. It is about ensuring that we can work cooperatively to find real solutions to help people who are in need. It does mark a stark change from the last decade of the Howard government, which spent much of its time, when you talked about state and federal relations, criticising the states for not doing enough on dental health.

Commencing in July this year, the Commonwealth Dental Health Program will assist states and territories to reduce waiting times by funding up to one million additional dental consultations and treatments over the next three years. This means that pensioners and concession card holders will get more help. It will assist the poorest members of our community and the people with the poorest dental health, but it will provide priorities as well. Those priorities will also go to Indigenous peoples and preschool children, groups that the Howard government failed to adequately care for and address appropriately.

In summing up, I want to take the opportunity of thanking senators for their contribution to the debate on these bills. These two bills are an important milestone. They represent a new path for the future for those 650,000 people who are on waiting lists. They provide a greater opportunity for the states and territories to work with the Commonwealth. They also ensure that those people who are in need who are on waiting lists will be provided with assistance.

This reminds us of what the Liberals thought about all of this. They have never been able to accurately answer the question of why they ripped out something in the order of $100 million a year from the former Commonwealth Dental Health Program and ignored dental health as an issue for more than a decade—other than blaming states or creating a notion that they were in fact active in this area. Of course, they were active in this area. They were active in creating the waiting list of 650,000.

The Rudd government are working hard to address this waiting list through our $290 million investment in the Commonwealth Dental Health Program, but that program is not alone. We recognise that it has to work in tandem with the $490 million investment in our kids’ teeth through the Medicare Teen Dental Plan.

Unfortunately, we also understand that the opposition have foreshadowed an amendment to the bill. We will deal with that during the committee stage at some length. I will only highlight at this point that, when you look at the issues that are created by amending for such a review as the opposition have outlined, perhaps it really does highlight how they have ignored dental issues over the past 11 years.

When you look at how these programs are implemented, you see that programs such as the Medicare Teen Dental Program are implemented through Medicare. The wealth of information will flow back through to the Department of Health and Ageing. It will provide Health and Ageing, through Medicare, through my portfolio area, with the ability to ensure that the outcomes are being delivered on the ground. It will ensure that there is continual information flow between Health and Ageing, Medicare and, of course, the dental outcomes for teenagers, but also for the experience of the dental professionals. This is an area where there is close cooperation between Medicare and the Department of Health and Ageing to ensure that the outcomes do in fact realise real benefits for teenagers, that they provide better health and dental outcomes for teenagers and that they ensure for those people in receipt of the benefit that it does go to where it is needed. Medicare has a long history of working with Health and Ageing and, more particularly, the dental professionals in ensuring that all of these matters are dealt with adequately.

It is an unnecessary amendment. In fact, I think it is probably a fig leaf to explain why the opposition are now clearly supporting what is a good initiative, which they recognise as an initiative that is well overdue, one that they did not recognise needed to be done but that Labor clearly has now. So I think the foreshadowed amendment provides nothing short of a fig leaf to ensure that they can now support positive measures in this area.

We understand that the opposition is planning to disallow the closure of the former government’s failed chronic disease dental scheme. We acknowledge that some people did get some help out of that scheme—that is clear—if, of course, they could navigate the complex referral process and red tape that abounded in it. But many people, often the most needy in the community, missed out. They did not get the assistance that they needed. I could play Senator Abetz’s game, which is: guess the figure? Guess who? For example, over four years to 30 April 2008, in the whole of the Northern Territory, we could ask: was it one, two or three, or were no services at all provided to children and young adults aged up to 24? It was the latter. No services were provided. In South Australia over the same four years, again, how many services were provided—one, two, three or none? Again, it was none. No services at all—zero—were provided to children up to the age of 14. In total, over four years to 30 April 2008, the Howard government’s failed scheme will have spent less than $50 million, compared to the $780 million that the Rudd government is investing in dental health.

It is nonsensical to disallow the motion—the closure of the failed chronic disease program needs to be put to bed—and, in doing that, the opposition miss a great opportunity to clearly support two new initiatives in this area. Of course, they have a little time to reconsider that position, and I encourage them to take that opportunity. I encourage them to reconsider it. The Liberal Party have an opportunity. They showed today that they were not responsible economic managers. They do have an opportunity to salvage some of that.

Debate interrupted.