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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 9688


Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (13:16): I was thinking earlier that perhaps we should retitle this bill. I do not think that it is a bill about dental benefits at all. It should be called the 'over the rainbow dental benefits amendment bill 2012', because of course there is absolutely no funding whatsoever for the promises that the government has made here.

I had the opportunity over the weekend to speak to a number of people who work in dental practices as assistants, administrative staff or as dentists, and all of them expressed sincere concern about the effect that this gap in service provision that the government have developed will cause. It is complete rubbish for this government to claim that what they are trying to do is improve dental services. It is not funded. There is a gap of up to 18 months in the provision of services and it is clearly just about going after that ever more elusive budget surplus that they are so desperate to get.

And we have another classic example brewing at the moment, with regards to chemotherapy drugs, where the government is simply trying to push costs off the federal government budget and onto state governments by clogging up public hospital systems with people who are undergoing chemotherapy and cannot afford to pay what will be the significant difference between the cost of the preparation and infusion of the drugs. We see a similar campaign to the campaign that was launched by this government against the dentists involved in the very successful Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, whereby they tried to characterise dentists in the scheme as money-grubbing people who were simply interested in further improving the dental care of millionaires. We have a similar situation developing yet again with this government trying to claim that it is only greedy pharmaceutical companies who are concerned about the changes that will happen with the chemotherapy drugs when they go on the price disclosure system.

Of course that is not the case. There are more than 14 organisations and not just those representing drug companies, but also researchers, private clinics, people with cancer, and cancer advocacy organisations. People like Professor Ian Olver have spoken out about this terrible attempt the government are making to just simply cut off funding for the infusion costs of drugs, the 10 most popular chemotherapy drugs, on 1 December. Once again, it is simply a disgusting money-grubbing effort by this government to get their alleged surplus.

Even the thinking behind the government's processes here in terms of the so-called Dental Benefits Amendment Bill is completely flawed. The only people who will benefit from the government scheme long term are children between two and 17. They will be able to have treatments that cost up to $1,000 over two years, although they will not be able to do that for well over 12 months. What will happen for that small group of people who require more than $1,000 worth of work? Basically, all they will know is that they need more than $1,000 worth of work. That is as good as it gets.

None of this legislation comes into force until 1 July 2014. We already have 650,000 people on public dental waiting lists in the states and the Labor plan will only provide 1.4 million more services over the next six years. Yet the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which will close down completely and be not replaced for more than 18 months, provided 20 million services and seven million of those services were in the last financial year and, contrary to what the government wants us to believe, whilst that scheme allowed people to have up to $4,250 over two years, the average cost was about $1,100 per treatment. So it was not a massively expensive scheme and 80 per cent of people using that scheme were concessional cardholders. So it was not a millionaires' scheme either.

It is interesting to look at the research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. I refer to a report of theirs from October this year entitled 'Families and their oral health'. They make the point that parental factors are a serious and major influence on children's oral health. If parents do not get dental services and do not have dental treatment, then it is quite likely that their children will not either. This is partly about cost and partly about availability. Of course, this government is doing nothing until after July 2014 to improve the availability in the public system within the states and territories. It is partly about that and it is also about people understanding the need for good dental health.

The report says that on average about 10 per cent of Australian children experience toothache in any one year and about 13 per cent avoid some foods because of oral problems. All up at least 17 per cent of children either experience toothache or avoid some foods because they cannot chew them properly. Older children, those between 11 and 17, were more likely than younger children to be affected. Children who had had a problem in the last 12 months were more likely than children who did not to: have a perceived need for dental care reported by their parent, have their oral health reported by their parent as fair or poor, have parents who avoided or delayed visiting the dentist themselves due to the cost, be from families who report difficulty having to pay a $150 dental bill and have parents who had also experienced the same sorts of problems as their children—that is, toothache and in particular the need to avoid some foods because they cannot chew them properly. So the oral health of parents is a good indicator of the oral health of children.

Of course, everyone supports the idea of improving our dental services to children—there can be no dispute about that—but $1,000 over two years is a cruel joke in terms of properly assisting those with real dental health issues. The money will run out before the toothache does. This government has not even told us how it will go about funding its $4.1 billion dental health pie in the sky. It is a serious issue that this government is simply and cold heartedly, in my view, completely avoiding because it is so desperately keen to do something about the problems that it has in balancing the budget.

The Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is exactly what it says. It is available through Medicare, which all taxpayers fund, to children or adults with chronic disease that might affect their teeth. This is a very large group of people. It includes diabetics and heart patients—and the list goes on and on. All this government is going to do is put them at the bottom of the public dental health lists for at least 18 months. They will be waiting to be seen after the 650,000 already on the waiting lists in the states and territories. It is unbelievable that, out of the $4.1 billion dream the government is proposing, there will be $1.3 billion given to state and territory governments to improve their public dental services. Of course, this is another pie in the sky. That funding will start to flow, if these opposite ever find it, in July 2014. That is when they will open the funding exercise to allow for the building of new clinics, for the purchase of new equipment and for, one hesitates to say, the training of new dentists. We are short in that area as well.

In many ways the huge number of people on the public dental health system is not just about the lack of funds; it is also about the lack of infrastructure within state dental services at the present time. But, goodness no, delay the funding until July 2014! It reminds me of the Redcliffe superclinic, which was absolutely, definitely going to be operational in August 2008 but which is not yet operational. The same thing will happen here. At least 12 months, if not years and years, of work will need to be done to create the infrastructure if and when they find the money to do it.

It beggars belief that this wonderful new system is going to fix teeth. It beggars belief that the Greens are prepared to support this bill in its current state. It is not really a matter of concern apparently to them that there will be varying amounts of time—to January 2014 for children and to July 2014 for adults—when there will be no services. The Chronic Disease Dental Scheme stops on 30 November, which is less than a week away, and there will be nothing until the beginning of a scheme, if they find the money, in January 2014. I cannot believe that this is a better system than that that currently exists. On that basis, I cannot understand the Greens' support for the system.

The Gillard government has already cut $4 billion out of private health insurance and has managed to hide $1.6 billion of cuts to public hospital services in the October MYEFO.

I am genuinely concerned that the same thing will happen, if we get a budget in May next year, with the funding for this scheme. It has got to come out of some other cuts that the government has announced or, of course, it can stay on the wish list, like so many other things that are currently on the wish list like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which must go ahead but can only go ahead if this government funds it properly and adequately. It is yet another example of the complete inability of this government to implement any sort of system that actually helps people in Australia rather than hurts them.