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Thursday, 22 November 2012
Page: 9617

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (21:10): I rise to make a brief contribution to the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. This bill will implement the federal Labor government's dental health reform package. The oral health of Australian children has been declining since the mid-1990s. By the age of 15, six out of every 10 children will have experienced tooth decay. That is why the Labor government are taking action to implement our dental health reform package.

This is a six-year package that will invest over $4 billion. It includes $2.7 billion for around 3.4 million Australian children who will be eligible for funded dental care; $1.3 billion for around 1.4 million additional services for adults on low incomes—including pensioners, concession cardholders and those with special needs—who will have better access to dental health care in the public system; and $225 million for dental services in terms of capital and workforce for people living in areas of need, such as outer metropolitan, regional, rural and remote areas.

For those 3.4 million Australian children, going to the dentist will be just like seeing a GP. In my home state of Tasmania—and, as Senator Polley has just reminded me, her home state, and also Senator Colbeck's home state—around 74,000 children from 40,000 families will benefit from this new dental reform package. Eligible Australian families who receive family tax benefit part A will be entitled to $1,000 per child every two years over the life of the package. This $1,000 can be used for basic care on procedures such as check-ups, cleaning, scaling, fluoride treatments and fillings. Investment in our children's teeth is so vital. It is an investment for the future and it will significantly benefit them late in life.

Recent studies have outlined that children in lower socioeconomic areas experience 1½ times more tooth decay and cavities than those in wealthier areas, and members of low-income households have more than twice as much untreated tooth decay as those in high-income households. Almost 20,000 children under the age of 10 are hospitalised each year due to avoidable dental issues, and 45 per cent of 12-year-olds have decay in their permanent teeth. In 2007, just under half—46 per cent—of six-year-olds attending school dental services had a history of decay in baby teeth. Finally, people earning more than $60,000 per year have, on average, seven more teeth than those earning less than $20,000.

The statistics are damning. I could go on, but these statistics highlight why the Gillard Labor government have taken action to implement our new dental health plan. These figures are simply not acceptable. For many years, Medicare and public hospitals have given Australians access to free Medicare whilst millions have missed out on adequate dental care. So I am extremely proud that it is the Gillard Labor government that is tackling this issue head on and investing in dental reform and putting forward a package to improve the oral health of Australian children.

But we are not stopping there. As I have mentioned earlier, the dental reform package also includes a $1.3 billion investment in additional services for adults on low incomes. This will cover 1.4 million services for pensioners and concession card holders as well as those with special needs and enable them to access dental health services in the public system. We will also provide $225 million for funding in dental infrastructure and the workforce in outer-metropolitan, rural and regional areas, which will assist more Australians regardless of where they live to gain access to high-quality dental care.

Our $4 billion dental health reform package comes on top of the $515 million announced in the 2012-13 federal budget. This budget measure will see 400,000 people benefit from a blitz on the public dental waiting list. Of this budget commitment, $345.9 million will be set aside for treating patients on waiting lists over the next three years, including Indigenous Australians. This blitz on public dental waiting lists will help treat people with emergency procedures and those with preventative needs.

We will also increase the Voluntary Dental Graduate Year Program from 50 to 100 placements per year by 2016 at a cost of $35.7 million over three years. This will help increase the capacity of our dental workforce by delivering more dentists who can provide support and care for Australians. This funding will be used to provide practice experience and professional development opportunities, including in those areas that are underserviced, to dental graduates. The Gillard Labor government will direct $45.2 million over four years to introduce an oral health therapist graduate year program. This will give placement opportunities with a focus on public dental services to 50 new graduates each year from 2014.

Services in regional areas will be strengthened by a new $77.7 million grants program to encourage and help dentists to relocate to regional, rural and remote areas. There are grants of between $15,000 and $120,000 to relocate, depending on where the dentist moves to, and grants of $250,000 to help with the purchase and fit-out of new dental facilities. This program will play a vital role in attracting dentists to regional and rural areas, where we know it is harder to access dentists and dental services.

In closing my short contribution here tonight I want to say that the evidence was quite clear: the oral health of our children was suffering; it was vitally important that we acted. That is exactly what the Gillard Labor government has done. This bill and other measures we have implemented are designed to improve the oral health of Australians, particularly our children, and I am proud to be part of the Gillard Labor government that is taking action to address the dental needs of our country. I commend the bill to the chamber.