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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4878

Mr GEORGANAS (Hindmarsh) (11:15): Bills that deal with people's dental hygiene and dental health are extremely important to all of us. I have a seat, which is one of the oldest in the country, where well over 20 per cent of the population is 65 and over. The issue of dental health and dental care has been one very close to my heart for many, many years, as I know it is for the member for Shortland, who is in the chamber with us. From day one when I was elected, constituents would come to see me to tell me that they were concerned that there was no scheme in place, that there was very little in the way of dental healthcare and that they would have to go on the public waiting list.

Prior to 1996 the Keating government had put in place a Commonwealth scheme for dental care. One of the very first acts of the former Liberal government, when they came into government in 1996, was to cut that scheme, which put thousands and thousands of people on the public waiting list and extended that waiting list blow-out to, I think, about 700,000 people at one stage. We had many people, especially people who were pensioners, who were frail and who had bad health, on waiting lists for years and years with their teeth rotting, being in pain and deteriorating very quickly, which caused other issues and problems. I raised this issue many, many times whilst in opposition. All we were told was that it had nothing to do with the then government and to go and see the state government.

My view has always been that, when you break an arm, you go to hospital or to your doctor and you will be looked after. When you break a tooth, you could be in just as much pain and it could be just as detrimental to your health, yet no-one wants to know about it. So this is a very important issue.

For many years we have been talking about these particular issues. I know that the Australian government understands the importance of providing timely, affordable and high-quality oral healthcare to Australians. It has long been the Gillard government's policy to close the chronic disease dental scheme and to replace it with a new Commonwealth dental health program. This is because the chronic disease dental scheme, while providing the services for some parts of the population, is not well targeted and does not provide assistance to access dental services for Australians most in need. Many of those whom I spoke about earlier from 1996 onwards were people most in need. The government's proposal for the CDHP would provide additional public dental services for pensioners and for concession card holders.

However the Senate has twice prevented closure of the CDDS, which means that the government has been unable to implement this program and the scheme continues to operate. As I said, for years in opposition I would raise the issue of dental care, I would raise the issue of dental hygiene and all we got back was, 'It's got nothing to do with the federal government. Go to your state government and complain.' So it is quite ironic that the first time we hear anything about dental health is through this particular private member's bill, the Health Insurance (Dental Services) Bill 2012, where the opposition want to give a free pass to the dentists. What about all those mums and dads out there, battling with school fees, with the rising cost of living—those people in need? They go on about them receiving the family payments et cetera. We have an opposition that say they should pay back the funds to which they were not entitled, even under financial strain, under the family package payments that were announced last week. But here we have them saying that those people who have perhaps breached should pay back funds through their taxes. The majority of dentists are fine, upstanding people and we need them, but certainly investigations have taken place and we have seen that this particular area is an area that needs to be scrutinised. It is just like anyone else—when you are given that amount of money to go to the dentist to have your teeth fixed, they need to be done—and where investigations have been done, where there have been breaches they have been asked to pay back the money. So it is interesting to see today that the first time the opposition have come to this place to talk about dental services is when they are seeking to pay money back to dentists.

This is a big, big issue. It is a huge issue in terms of ensuring that we provide services for the public that require the services of dental healthcare. This government provided around $2.27 billion, which has been claimed under this particular scheme. It commenced in 2007. We have come up with another scheme which will ensure that those in need go off that list and that will ensure that they have their teeth and their dental hygiene looked after.

We have an opposition which, through this private member's bill, wishes to give a free pass to one section of our society which does not need a free pass, which does not need overpayment from the Commonwealth. That is what this is all about. They should be more able than your average age pensioner, or family or disabled pensioner to pay back where breaches have been found. There is over $21 million owed to the Commonwealth. Over $21 million of public funds have been received when they should not have been. It is pretty simple; it is not rocket science. Now the opposition says the government should not worry about that—let it go, just let it slide. That is a double standard and the double standard is shocking. It is almost unbelievable.

The Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is an animal of the conservative government of John Howard and here we are saying that we want to pay back money for breaches that are owed to the Commonwealth, which is taxpayers' money. This scheme was introduced into parliament and passed in the very last days of that government, with a view to giving the Australian public the impression that it was doing something about poor dental health in our community. As I said, for many years many members in the then Labor opposition raised this issue continuously only to be told not to worry about it and 'to go back and see your state government'.

While the rules have been in place for some four or so years the opposition says that they understand that dentists might not understand them. The rules are there for everyone and people should understand them. Not understanding the rules is not an excuse. They also say that they cannot be expected to know and apply the rules. Their argument is insulting to dentists and offensive to taxpayers all around the nation.

We all know that dental health is a central element of a person's health. We know that without good teeth or, more to the point, with really bad teeth, people do not eat as they need to and their health deteriorates. Nutrition is compromised and people become more exposed to contracting any number of ailments that affect members of our communities. We know it can affect cardiovascular health; it can affect a whole range of things. This is something that the public has known for many, many years. They also recognise that the states have not been up to the task of running and fully funding a dental scheme that meets community need.

As I said, there was a Commonwealth scheme, which was axed by the then Howard government as that government's very first act in government in 1996. After a decade of denial of Commonwealth responsibility by the former Liberal government, they finally buckled to community pressure and decreasing popularity and introduced their Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. The government has long held the view that the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is a deeply flawed scheme. It is open to millionaires, as it is not means-tested. It is another example of conservatives' wastage of public funds through welfare for the top one per cent. In the meantime, over the Howard period we had 700,000 battlers on that waiting list. It does not ensure accountability. Dentists have been getting their public money even if they have not completed the work. Constituents have come to my office who have paid that money through the scheme and the work has not been completed or was not done properly. They go back and get told that the money has run out and that they should go to their doctor when the time is up and get another piece of paper to go back. You can see that these people have gone there in good faith with this scheme to have their dentures or their teeth fixed and you know there has been no accountability. Therefore, although one can say that dentists have been getting it wrong or do not know, there are criteria and people should follow those criteria, like any other organisation.

Broader than this, it is open to rorts. People are being treated without chronic conditions. The gesture within the scheme that it is targeted for the benefit of those with chronic conditions does not even stack up. We have had health professionals acting very unprofessionally with taxpayers' money without redress or penalty. This government's audit of the scheme has shown the scheme to be not working properly. And now the opposition want the government and the Australian taxpayer to wave off that manipulation that has been exposed. We have talked about $21 million. That is a lot of taxpayers' money.

The opposition wants us to adopt their position: if you are a pensioner, the government will get every cent that has been paid in error, but if you are a dentist, don't worry about it—keep the thousands of dollars delivered for each and every patient, because we're not worrying about it. But, if you are a pensioner and you have been paid one cent over the amount that has been on to you, we will pursue you. This is what the opposition are saying. It is a double standard and the hypocrisy is unbelievable. It is not good enough for anyone to take public funds inappropriately and then, when caught out, say as their excuse that they did not know the rules. That does not stack up anywhere.

I would like to ask the member opposite whether he ever had a constituent, an age pensioner, who had been told that they will need to pay back hundreds of dollars to Centrelink because of some error or something that they did not know, as the dentists are saying. The pensioner pleads for his help, saying they simply cannot afford it. Has the member ever been asked for help in such a situation, and what did he say there? What would the member have said to a pensioner who said that? 'We do have rules and we need to apply those rules.' But surely we must apply the rules fairly, impartially, without favouritism—not for one section of the community but the same across the board for everyone.

I appreciate that the opposition has at least acknowledged that the scheme is an issue, because we all know it is. It is an issue. It always has been. It does not meet the basic needs of our electorates—the people who need our care. I have had so many people in my electorate of Hindmarsh crying out for dental care, for a real dental scheme, since I became the member in 2004. I have had examples of people who have performed their own dental work because they could not afford to go to a dentist and because of the list was so long. There was a report in the media about a gentleman who drank a bottle of scotch and with a pair of pliers extracted his tooth—very painful, very graphic, but true. He actually did it because he was on a list that would have taken two years to have his painful tooth looked at.

These are real issues and we really need to ensure that people get the dental scheme that they require, because, as I said at the beginning of this speech, when you break an arm you go to your doctor or the hospital and they look at it and treat it. If you break a tooth, we need to have the same form of service as we do for all our health.