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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 383

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (18:18): I am pleased to be co-sponsoring this motion. Cutting health treatments for children and low-income families is definitely not good policy. Inevitably, it just leads to deferred health costs for the public health system. The money saved today would merely be spent many times over in the future to deal with escalating problems that may have been prevented through early intervention.

We do not support cutting $300 per child from the Child Dental Benefits Schedule because it is short-sighted and, I feel, poorly considered. Ensuring that children have healthy teeth helps set them up for a healthier adulthood. We know that poor dental health is linked to bigger health problems, such as heart disease, so moves to scale back dental services should not be taken lightly.

The CDBS scheme has been in operation since January 2014 and provides basic dental services such as cleaning, fillings, X-rays and root canals to eligible children aged between two and 17. The government had originally proposed scrapping the scheme and creating a new one that combined funding for both adults and children; however, several states rejected the proposal over concerns that they were being short-changed and thousands of people would miss out on treatment. In December the government instead announced a modified Child Dental Benefits Schedule that cut the scheme's cap from $1,000 per child over two years to $700 per child, claiming that this reflected user patterns. This could not be further from the truth. Last financial year more than one million children accessed free dental treatment through the scheme. This was slightly more than the previous year, costing $312.7 million in benefits. The government has budgeted for 2.4 million children to use the service each year, representing a substantial saving on paper. Despite this, the government feels the need to rip money out of the scheme to the detriment of the children who do use it.

The Chief Medical Officer's review of the scheme administration, released in March last year, suggested the government's target of 2.4 million users was optimistic, and that the poor uptake was probably because the program was poorly promoted. Families getting Family Tax Benefit Part A are only made aware of their entitlement through a single letter from Centrelink. The scheme's low profile is compounded by the fact that most services across Australia are delivered privately. The jurisdictions where it was delivered through public dental services enjoy very much greater utilisation of the scheme. For instance, in my home state of South Australia almost 40 per cent of eligible children took up free dental care, the highest rate of use in 2014, and the review noted that the South Australian Dental Service was particularly proactive in accessing the scheme. In New South Wales, where it is almost solely delivered privately, the uptake was closer to 30 per cent. Regardless, the fact that one million children a year use this free dental care is no small thing. Because the scheme is so highly targeted, the children who need it most do use it. The states with the highest degree of use also had the highest number of disadvantaged children. About one in 10 children who used it in 2015 went over the $700 limit proposed by the government in just one year.

The government has not made a sound case for cutting the dental care subsidy. In fact, it has made no substantive case at all. For this reason we do not agree with this measure and we support the disallowance motion.

Question agreed to.