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Tuesday, 10 September 1996
Page: 3115


Senator NEAL —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Family Services. I refer the minister to the government's announcement in the budget that the Commonwealth dental health program will be abolished. This is a measure that the Melbourne Age described as `the cruellest and meanest cut in the federal budget'. Is the Victorian Minister for Health, Mr Knowles, correct in stating, `There is no way states can cover the complete withdrawal of Commonwealth funding,' and, `It is simply not possible for the states to fill this gap'? What then do you have to say to pensioners and health card holders about their access to dental services? Also what impact is this going to have on the waiting times for access to dental care?


Senator NEWMAN —Senator Neal would be well aware, I would hope, that the state dental systems do continue. That is once again one of these facts which is not actually out in the public arena.

Opposition senators interjecting


The PRESIDENT —Order! Minister, just wait till there is silence. Senator Newman has been asked a question and is entitled to answer it.


Senator NEWMAN —I thought Senator Neal and the opposition were interested in the situation of older people and dental care. I want to first of all clear away some myths which have of recent weeks been perpetuated by some people to the detriment of old people—yet another scare campaign.


Senator Faulkner —They're entitled to be scared, aren't they, with this policy? You are scaring them.


The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Faulkner, stop interjecting!


Senator NEWMAN —The states are maintaining their dental health schemes. They had the responsibility entirely on their own until three years ago when the former Keating government introduced a four-year program, which was to come to an end in this coming year. This government has regretfully, I think, had to end it one year early because of the situation that we found the national books to be in when we came into government.

Having said that, what is also not spelled out but should be clearly on the record is that social security beneficiaries still have their health card entitlements which entitle them to dental care. So that has not been removed. Senator Neal shakes her head and seems surprised. It is a fact. My department is responsible for the health card entitlements and the distribution of health cards, and they are still covering them for dental health. So it is a cruel, cruel hoax on older people to be running this line that somehow there is no longer any dental care available for older Australians.


Senator NEAL —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Yes, we understand that the dental program is partially funded through the state and partially federally. Minister, what provision has been made in the budget to provide further funds if the balance of the responsibility for dental care is going to be transferred to the states?


Senator NEWMAN —There is no extra funding in the budget for dental care, as I just made clear if Senator Neal had listened. What has happened is that we have ended a pro gram which was a finite four-year program introduced by the Keating government on the eve of an election when they were desperate for something to sell to older Australians. It has lasted for three years.

Opposition senators interjecting


Senator NEWMAN —Madam President, could I please be heard? If they were interested in dental care, I thought they would have liked to hear the rest of the answer. I acknowledge that it has helped in some ways to reduce the waiting lists. Nevertheless, the responsibility traditionally has been that of the states. It remains the states, and the Commonwealth is still picking up the tab for social security beneficiaries.