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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11562

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (13:11): Today I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill. There is an old saying, which those opposite would do very well to learn and to obey: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' For some reason the government seem to have an obsession with taking a good scheme or successful policy—usually one introduced by this side of the House when in government—and dumping it for no apparent reason and to the detriment of the Australian public. One has to suspect in this case that it is something to do with money and with trouble in getting the books in order, which I think the Treasurer might have a lot of problems doing at the moment. The Labor government take good schemes, especially those introduced by our side when in government, and trashes them for no good reason. There are a couple we can think of—off-shore processing and temporary protection visas—which would be a couple of good ones to bring back in, and now it is dental care they are doing it to.

Last month I used an adjournment speech to detail just how devastating the Labor government's changes will be for dental patients, particularly in my electorate of Calare. I referred to the case of local pensioner, Ted, of Raglan, near Bathurst, who contacted me to express his outrage, and that of neighbours in his street, at the government's decision to scrap the highly successful Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. They are not only to scrap it now but have no alternative for care until Labor's new, untried, untested and unfunded dental health care scheme is introduced sometime in 2014. The government are scrapping a scheme introduced by the opposition leader when he was Minister for Health. As we heard mentioned earlier, it is a scheme that has provided more than $4,000 in Medicare dental benefits over two years for eligible patients, like Ted, with a chronic dental health condition. It is a scheme that has helped approximately one million patients with more than 17 million services since 2007.

Since my adjournment speech last month I have had quite a number of constituents contact me to express their fears, their concerns and, to be quite honest, their fury at Labor's changes to a highly successful and efficient dental healthcare scheme. I would like to share with the House and with the parliament a couple of these constituents' thoughts. I received a letter from Marion, a pensioner in Bathurst, regarding the scrapping of the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. She wrote:

I am writing to complain about the government … the way it closed it so soon. I am a diabetic and widower. I went to the doctor on 5 September and he wrote me out a referral to the dentist. I went on Monday morning 10 September, only to be told it closed on Saturday the 8th. The receptionist said I would probably be out of pocket. I thought we were entitled to $4,250. Now I cannot get my teeth fixed. It is unfair. I have paid taxes all my life, now to be left without any help.

This is part of a letter I received from self-confessed 'desperate aged pensioner' Geoff, from Forbes, regarding dental health work he needs:

With the Prime Minister's latest decision concerning dental health, does this mean I will be put on hold? All of this is affecting my health, dignity and self-esteem. I am an aged pensioner. I am afraid to appear in the public eye. I don't feel comfortable mixing with people in social outings. To make things worse, I suffer from depression.

And this is part of an email I received from David, in Oberon, which was aptly titled 'Things that worry me':

I have Diabetes. Part of the management of the disease is having closely managed good dental health. It is well known that Diabetes can turn fatal if a diabetic doesn't maintain good dental health. I know this because my doctor told me and when he put me on the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme.

He also told me that this was part of the medical management for which he was being paid by the government to manage my disease. Will the scrapping of the scheme now mean that the government isn't really serious about looking after senior people in ill health? I am able to pay for the ongoing management of my dental health within reason but it could mean that the crown I am in the process of getting or the regular maintenance of my teeth may now be delayed if the cost is too great.

In turn that may mean that infection could enter my body by way of my mouth that could exacerbate my Diabetes and in turn cause me to seek other medical treatment possibly in hospital that would be far more expensive to the government via Medicare than the cost of prevention.

Has the government thought this aspect through or don't they care about people with chronic diseases who look after themselves and are good Australian citizens?

Now to the specifics of today's amendment. The coalition's greatest concerns about Labor's plans to change the dental care scheme are that there is no alternative plan between the end of November and 2014 and that their plan appears to be entirely unfunded. It is a little hard to have a plan for dental care that has no money attached to it. You might be going to wish people well, but that will not solve many problems for them.

This bill makes very minor amendments to the Dental Benefits Act 2008, only changing the eligibility age of the current Medicare Teen Dental Plan from 12 to 17 years to 2 to 17 years. We understand that more than 60,000 services have been provided to children under the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. The closure of the scheme next month, on 30 November, will leave a 13-month gap for many children currently receiving treatment. There are children in the midst of treatment who will not be able to have their treatment completed by 30 November. Those families will have nowhere to turn. The minister and the Greens should explain why these children must suffer for 13 months with incomplete treatment and no certainty of the schedule of services that are to be provided, assuming the government actually delivers on its unfunded, unexplained promise, in 2014. We in the coalition support investment in dental health and do not oppose the intent of the bill, but our concerns must be addressed.

I have no doubt the main reason for dumping this is the fact that the Treasurer has the country, the government and himself in one heck of a mess in his budget. Heaven only knows what kind of a deficit we are really looking at in the 2012-13 budget. In a desperate attempt to mitigate it, the Treasurer and the Gillard government are willing to play with the medical and dental health of people who cannot afford it. The previous speaker talked about it not being subject to only those who cannot afford it. We are talking about people who really have serious problems and really cannot afford it. If you were serious, then, instead of scrapping it, why don't you amend it? But you are not. This government is scrapping it irrespective of what financial situation people are in. As we have said before, they have no alternative. They have a vague promise for 2014. It is a disgrace. The people of Calare are not alone in wondering what sort of a government walks out on them on a program that has done a lot for a lot of people.