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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11540

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (11:29): I am very pleased to speak out on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. I think this side of the House and certainly I have always been very focused on how we better provide dental care to those who need it most. Having good quality of teeth and having good dental care does make a huge impact on various aspects of our lives. First and foremost is the impact on our general health and wellbeing. If we do not address this issue in a preventative way then it will put strain on our health and hospital system. Living with poor dental health can be a painful exercise, affecting speech, sleep and eating, with certain foods even triggering off nerve endings. For some people, chewing anything can hurt because of rotten teeth and decay. If we do not look after our teeth and we lose the ability to chew then it is really a nightmare for many, many people and a severe impact on their quality of life.

Having poor dental care and poor teeth and oral health can also have very severe adverse interpersonal social impacts on a person's poor health, which can drive a person to withdraw from their life. People can suffer from the embarrassment of the appearance of their teeth, which can lead them to avoiding eating in public or having meals with friends, and even being afraid to smile and show their teeth in photos. Unhealthy-looking teeth can also cause people to miss out on job opportunities due to their outward appearance not meeting the employer's expectation. I think it is important to note that if people are not able in childhood to have good oral health then this poor oral health can follow them into adulthood. That is why I have been an advocate for a long time about supporting preventative care and preventative treatment to ensure that small problems in childhood are addressed and these issues are not carried on and do not get worse into adult life.

I think it can be said that the overall dental health of children has been improving over the decades, but this trend is not necessarily improving over the last two decades. It is shocking to look at some of the statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, which shows that almost 20,000 children under the age of 10 are hospitalised each year due to avoidable dental issues. It is also shocking that more than half of young people have tooth decay by the age of 15, with 45.1 per cent of 12-year-olds reported to have decay in their permanent teeth. Perhaps more alarming is that just under half of children who have just started school had a history of decay in their baby teeth. This is of concern and something that we on this side of the House are very, very driven to address.

I think it is important to look at the effect that income has. For so long, we have treated dental health as separate to physical health—separate to our normal health for which we can go to the doctor. Our dental health has been set very separately. It is not as easy for those that have a more modest income to afford to go to the dentist, unlike going to the local GP with the universal health care that we have. It is not as easy for people to be able to go and visit a dentist, especially if they are on a modest income. Many families cannot really afford the prospect of going to the dentist just to do preventative work. I think that is so important.

I am so pleased that this bill is going a long way to actually saying that, for those families that suffer from cost-of-living pressures and need assistance with their children's health care, we are going to provide that assistance. We are going to provide it for those to ensure that their children are able to access the health care that they need and ensure that the issues that they may experience in their childhood get addressed and do not continue on and plague them in their adult life. So I think this is incredibly important.

I also hear many cases in my electorate of adults who are in pain, putting up with poor dental health. I have seen firsthand the devastating impact that it can have on their lives. For many of these people the necessary treatment with a private dentist is too out of reach for their budgets, so they go on putting up with poor teeth.

We have heard a lot from the opposition today about their great plan for dental care, which they have not announced; there are no details. They say they will have a plan but there are no details. When they were in government, when the Howard government was elected, they ripped millions upon millions of dollars out of public dental care. In my electorate, at Noarlunga, as it was around the rest of the country, that led to huge waiting lists being accumulated. So many people could not access dental care because of the funding withdrawal by the coalition. Today we are seeing some crocodile tears when it comes to dental care. Their record while in government showed they ripped money out of the public dental system. Of course, those on a low income, who cannot afford a private dentist, use the public dental system and rely on the public dental system. In government, the opposition ripped money out of that.

We have not been doing that. We have been ensuring that we are putting money back into the public dental system and we have already made significant dental care investments. The government has provided, in its most recent budget, $515 million to have a blitz on public dental waiting lists. This is a quite shocking statistic: those who earn more than $60,000 a year have seven more teeth, on average, than Australia's poorest people. That shows quite clearly the income gap that causes the difference between those with good oral health and those without. We need to ensure that the public dental care system is accessible. We need to ensure that those on the lowest income who cannot afford to go to a private dentist can actually access the care they need. While the Liberal Party in government pulled out money, we are putting money back in.

I see the member for Boothby here, who has been very critical about the GP superclinic at Noarlunga. It is very disappointing that he has not recognised the important services that are available there. At the Noarlunga complex we have been able, with a partnership between the state and federal government, to triple the number of dental chairs. We have seen a rise from six dental chairs to 24 dental chairs.

Dr Southcott: You closed the school clinics. Good one!

Ms RISHWORTH: If the member for Boothby would look at the bill, maybe he would see the massive support we are providing for children in this bill, and then he might actually consider the bill and vote for it. It is disappointing that he will not vote for helping children get appropriate dental care. He seems to be opposed to this in Noarlunga, and I am sure the residents of Noarlunga would be very upset if he is opposed to increasing the number of dental chairs from six to 24, which is expected to provide 32,000 appointments for adults and children each year. This is an important boost. Importantly, we will provide the services to those who need it the most: those on a modest income.

We have heard a lot today about the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which the Liberal Party is so proud of. The now Leader of the Opposition introduced that scheme while he was health minister. As I have tried to illustrate, income plays an important role in whether or not you can get access to health care. When armed with these facts, you would think that when the Leader of the Opposition was looking at the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme he might look at the equity in dental care. That equity being: perhaps means test this? Perhaps means test this to ensure that the public money is being directed to those who need it most.

Of course, the now Leader of the Opposition—the then health minister—did not means test this program, and this provided another important inequity. That was that if people had a chronic disease then they could access a significant amount of money to get dental treatment. If you were poor or on a modest income, and did not have a chronic health condition, you could not access any money from it. It was poorly targeted and not means tested, so public money was going and, indeed, as the program continued there seemed to be increasing problems with the program.

Of course, first there was the cost blow-out; a complete cost blow-out that the then Leader of Opposition said would cost around $90 million each year. It ended up costing $1 billion each year. And there were still so many people who did not have a chronic disease waiting on the public dental waiting list because they ignored the public dental waiting list, and ignored the people that need it the most. So first of all there was the poor targeting: $1 billion targeted very poorly, not means tested and available to people on a very high income.

The scheme was also poorly managed, receiving 1,000 complaints and with reports and evidence of wide misuse of the scheme. This includes some practitioners ordering dentures that did not fit, unnecessary crowns or other work and charging up to $4,250 for doing very little work. We often hear the opposition talk in this place about using taxpayers' money responsibly. Unfortunately, they do not have a very good track record on this. They might talk a lot in this place about using taxpayers' money very wisely but, unfortunately, while in government they failed to deliver this, and the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme was one of those.

Unfortunately, it has been left to this government to fix it up and actually to ensure that the money that is spent by taxpayers on public dentistry is done in a way that ensures that those who need it most do get access to it. We announced a policy of shutting this scheme down. We believed straight away that this money was poorly targeted and that it was being, quite frankly, rorted in a lot of cases—therefore, we felt very strongly about it. To those on the opposition benches who say that this is such a surprise: this has been our policy for a long time and we are now delivering on that policy to ensure that that money is used responsibly, that that money is not wasted and that that money is actually directed, as I said, to those who need it the most.

The bill before the House today is the first step in our dental reform package, which really seeks to bridge accessibility issues. These reforms build on the work that the government has done so far to turn around the impact of the coalition government's cuts to the public dental scheme when they were in government. Quite frankly, there is the fact that the coalition ignored the dental health of children when they were in office. It provides $2.7 billion for around 3.5 million Australian children, who will be eligible for subsidised dental care under the children's dental scheme, Grow Up Smiling. That will commence on 1 January 2014. As well, we are providing $1.3 billion for the states and territories on 1 July 2014 to expand the services for millions and millions of adults in the public system who are low income earners, to ensure that they do have access to better oral health care. I was speaking also to the dental service at Noarlunga, and they are now embarking on being able, with the injection of money from the Commonwealth, to engage in preventative check-ups to ensure that they do not let problems just go into emergencies—go into chronic problems—but are actually having preventative check-ups to stop the problems from occurring.

This does build on the work that we have— (Time expired)