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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 6210

Senator BUSHBY (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (11:38): I start first by thanking senators on both sides of the chamber for their contributions to the debate on the Health Insurance (Dental Services) Bill 2012 [No. 2], but I would like to express my disappointment at the contributions and the approach taken by both the government and the Greens on this matter. From the government's perspective, the minister himself has acknowledged that the treatment of some of the dentists involved under this scheme was unfair, and he has indicated as far back as during May estimates that he would be taking action to redress that. So there was a clear acknowledgement that there were problems, there were issues.

Presented today is a clear and easy way of fixing that. The fact that it has taken at least three months to try to address it in the way the minister is trying to do it, with still no resolution, no indication at all about how or what is going to occur, shows that the government is having some challenges in the approach it is taking to fix this. And yet here before us today we have the bill which will fix it. It will address the injustice that dentists across Australia have faced as a result of the appalling approach the government has taken to dealing with the minor transgressions that occurred in their administrative approach to the scheme.

From the Greens' perspective—Senator Di Natale has been a champion for these dentists. Here we have today an opportunity for the Greens to support a resolution that dentists around the country require urgently. There are dentists around the country who have faced issues that have led to them thinking about committing suicide. There are dentists around the country who have debts hanging over their heads, who are looking at bankruptcy, who are waiting for a resolution. They cannot sit around and wait for the government. As Senator Siewert has just said, they cannot take on faith that the government is going to do the right thing, because as of now the government has done absolutely nothing other than make a short statement through the medium of estimates. I am particularly disappointed that those on the other side of the chamber have used this debate as an opportunity to further perpetuate misinformation in relation to the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. They have failed to acknowledge the essence of what this bill seeks to achieve, and instead hijacked the debate to suit their own political agenda.

I introduced this bill into the Senate to redress the injustice that the government has inflicted upon the nation's dental health professionals. When I introduced this bill, I did so because I wanted the parliament to examine the wrongdoings perpetrated by this government against the many dentists in this country who have acted in good faith and provided dental services to Australians under the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. I did not introduce this bill seeking a debate on the pros or the cons of that scheme. Nor did I introduce this bill seeking a debate on who in this parliament has the best dental scheme. This is an issue that is now well beyond grubby political point-scoring, and now is not the time for one-upmanship. Now is the time to address this issue and reach a conclusive solution, and the opportunity is here today if the Greens join with us to make that happen.

In fact, the intentions of this bill are not entirely removed from Minister Kim Carr's own announcement in May that retrospective change to the legislation is required to address the issues in relation to the audit processes. But Labor clearly does not want to take this opportunity to redress their own wrongdoings against Australian dentists who have been penalised for unwitting mistakes that they have made when working under this program. That is blatantly obvious from Labor's total inaction, as I mentioned, since Minister Kim Carr's announcement in May.

Instead, Labor's senators have used the time for this debate to stand up in this chamber to try to trash the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme and shamelessly promote their own dental policy. In her speech in this debate last sittings, Senator Urquhart went into great detail to outline the measures this government is planning to revolutionise publicly funded dental care, which would all be well and good if it were actually relevant to the issue we are here to discuss today—that is, their own incompetence and mismanagement of the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. It is an issue that, if this government refuses to face up to it, will prove prohibitive to them implementing any further public dental schemes in the future.

The dental profession is rightly irate with this government over the handling of this scheme. Even Senator Moore conceded in her speech that dentists have withdrawn from practising under the scheme as a result of the audit process. If the Labor Party do not actively seek to engage with dentists now to address the profession's concerns and implement a legislative solution to this problem, they will struggle to find in future any dentist who will be willing to participate in any further government initiatives in this area.

But instead, during debate in the last sitting period, Labor senators spoke on anything but their own mismanagement of the scheme. Senator Bilyk said:

If we could free up the money for this flawed scheme, we could provide investment in dental services where it is really needed, because we all know that it is difficult for Australians in rural and remote areas to access dental services.

She went on to say that it was 'a scheme which is not targeted or means tested and which has not serviced Australians in need'.

This is not true. I urge Labor senators to check their facts. This scheme has been accessed by close to one million Australians. And as Senator Di Natale informed the chamber when he spoke on this bill, 80 per cent of those one million patients are concession cardholders. This does not really stack up with Labor's claims that the scheme is being used by millionaires. In fact, many patients of the scheme, on hearing of this government's desperate attempt to claw back from dentists moneys under this scheme, wrote to and phoned their dentists out of concern. I have had patients of the scheme phoning my office to tell me how upset they are by the way that their dentist has been treated. And patients of the scheme even went as far as making submissions to the Senate inquiry, writing in to tell the committee how much of the dental care they received under the scheme assisted in improving their overall health and lifestyle. Senator Bilyk and her colleagues are wrong; the scheme is assisting Australians in need and Australians in regional and rural areas.

Tasmanian dentist Dr Wilma Johnson was practising under the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme in the Huon Valley region, a rural area just over 30 kilometres from Senator Bilyk's own electorate office. Dr Johnson was prepared to work in a rural area that is notoriously difficult to staff. She showed me before and after photos of some of the work she has conducted, and I can assure Senator Bilyk that her patients, Senator Bilyk's constituents, were definitely in need of the dental services she provided for them under the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, dental services that undoubtedly contributed to the patients' greater overall health and less dependence on the public health system as a result, and services that the patients themselves would not have been able to fund. I am surprised that Senator Bilyk did not know this already and that she made those ill-informed statements in her speech last sittings, especially as that particular example is from her own constituency, less than a one-hour drive from her electorate office.

What has Dr Wilma Johnson received for her trouble and hard work? A bill from the Commonwealth in excess of $24,000—just because she failed to fill in a form prior to conducting the treatment. The treatment provided was necessary and completed to a high standard. The patients are happy, they received the services and, in fact, some of Dr Johnson's patients called my office to tell me so. None of her patients were financially disadvantaged as a result of their treatment. Indeed, in some instances, Dr Johnson provided additional work on a pro bono basis. So why is it that this government has been so relentless in pursuing Dr Johnson for over $24,000, a figure that represents more than three times her earnings as a part-time employee in a rural Tasmanian dental practice? There were hundreds of other cases just like this all over the country, and on each occasion the timing of the completion of paperwork has had no impact on patient care or financial outcomes. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the dentists who were found non-compliant in the audit process have provided legitimate care to patients in need entirely in accordance with the terms of the scheme but for minor and incidental requirements.

Presented today is a bill which gives this place an opportunity to redress those injustices, an opportunity to ensure that dentists like Dr Wilma Johnson and hundreds of dentists in a similar position, right across Australia, can have the concern, the worry and the imposition that has been placed upon them by unfair bills to claw back the money paid for services that they did deliver. We are not talking here about cases of people who are defrauding the Commonwealth. We are talking about cases where they would legitimately be entitled to claim these funds if only they had dotted the 'i' or crossed the 't' properly for services that they actually did deliver. It is not a case of fraud; it is a case of minor administrative mistakes. As a result, these people are suffering. We have the opportunity today to redress that injustice and I urge the Senate to support the bill.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that this bill be now read a second time.


The PRESIDENT: The time for the debate on private senators' bills has now finished.