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Thursday, 12 August 2021
Page: 8128

Ms SHARKIE (Mayo) (11:12): I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2021. This is an important change to the dental scheme vouchers to include children who are under two years of age on the vouchers. We know that previously this scheme was available for children aged two to 17 years. This is an incredibly important scheme. This scheme ensures that children from low-income families are able to access dental care. I think, importantly, it encourages children to develop a lifelong relationship with a dentist through those treatment visits. It's estimated that each year from 1 January next year an additional 300,000 children aged between zero and two will become eligible for the program. The scheme ensures children can access just over $1,000 in benefits for basic dental services, with benefits capped over two consecutive calendar years.

If you want to determine a person's poverty, you just have to look at their mouth. I think teeth give that indication of a person's financial means and social means more than anything else. I believe we have another cohort of Australians, a very large cohort of Australians, deserving of a similar scheme—that is, aged pensioners. I've been a long supporter of National Seniors Australia's Fix Pension Poverty campaign to provide a universal dental healthcare scheme for older Australians. I've been such a supporter of this proposal that I requested that the Parliamentary Budget Office arrange costings for such a scheme back in February 2019. Back then, that cost was approximately $700 million per year, and those costings were determined on a person being 75 years of age or over and on the full pension.

Teeth in poor condition is not just a cosmetic issue; it affects your ability to communicate, it causes shyness and embarrassment—when teeth are missing from the front, in particular—and it causes difficulty speaking. People don't smile—if you're talking to somebody and they're missing front teeth, in particular—and they often hold their hand over their mouth to speak. They're embarrassed by their teeth. Broken dentures and rotten teeth affect your ability to eat; ulcers and abscesses lead to infection. There is a huge correlation between dental and mouth infections and heart infections.

Addressing dental health is recommendation No. 60 of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, under the heading 'Establish a Senior Dental Benefits Scheme':

The Australian Government should establish a new Senior Dental Benefits Scheme, commencing no later than 1 January 2023, which will:

a. fund dental services to people who:

i. live in residential aged care, or

ii. live in the community and receive the age pension or qualify for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card

b. include benefits set at a level that minimises gap payments, and includes additional subsidies for outreach services provided to people who are unable to travel, with weightings for travel in remote areas

c. provide benefits for services limited to treatment required to maintain a functional dentition (as defined by the World Health Organization) with a minimum of 20 teeth, and to maintain and replace dentures.

That's one of the findings of the royal commission, and we should be implementing that now—we really should. There would be a cost benefit to us to do this because mouth and teeth issues are the third most common reason for acute preventable hospital admissions in Australia, so if we had a dental scheme for older Australians we would actually greatly reduce the cost of hospital admissions in Australia. My contribution to debate with respect to this bill won't take long. This is a very good bill and I commend this bill. But I would urge the government to look at the needs of older Australians while we are also ensuring we meet the need of younger Australians to have a dental voucher. To me these are two cohorts of Australians that are equally vulnerable and that could greatly benefit from such a dental voucher scheme. Thank you.