Dental care funding cut by Labor’s delaying tactics

The Labor government is cutting $1.5 billion from the health budget through the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill.

The minister has confirmed the cuts, saying that this is a direct savings measure—and we know why that is necessary, don’t we?

 It is necessary because of the combination of Labor’s absolute addiction to wasting billions and billions of taxpayers’ funds and as a result of what we now know is $120 billion worth of unfunded spending promises: whether it is the NDIS, whether it is the Gonski review changes, whether it is the unfunded submarines or whether it is border protection—the list is almost endless.

And we do know that this particular bill is part of that government-unfunded $120 billion worth of promises. It is $4.1 billion worth of a dental program that will not actually commence until 2014—well after the next election, interestingly.

The bill before the House is not really about a broad policy debate on dental health, and it certainly does not go to any of the questions of the longer-term issues about dental health management in this nation. I do know that Sydney University oral pathologist Professor Hans Zoellner has said that approximately 1.5 million people have accessed this program, 80 per cent of whom were actually healthcare card holders.

They are the people who have accessed this program, who need this sort of support. He also said that this Medicare scheme is actually well targeted.

In spite of the comments that have been come from the other side, it is targeted, because it is delivering, generally, to people on low incomes. And, as I said, Professor Zoellner’s comments were that 80 per cent of those who have received this level of care were healthcare card holders.

But if the government are looking at longer-term dental health care in this country, why have they refused the coalition’s bipartisan offer to work to basically refine the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, the existing scheme? Instead, they have just closed the program—because they are really chasing that budget ‘surplus’ and have to find the money from somewhere—and are proposing that some time in the future, an alternative program, the source of funding for which, as I said, is yet to be announced, will be in place.

 It is another never-never plan, and well out beyond the next election. This is a pattern for Labor. It is also a pattern for Labor to take funding from one group of Australians and simply redistribute it to another.

We are talking here about people who are midway through treatment. Since 2007 we do know that people with chronic diseases, whether it is diabetes, whether they are in remission from cancer or having treatment for leukaemia, or whether it is heart disease—people who have depended, and do depend, on dental services to protect their health. It is not a cosmetic issue for people with these types of diseases.

This is a very serious issue, and they have relied on this scheme to assist them through probably the toughest times in their lives, some of the toughest health challenges they are facing.

This CDD Scheme is the one that has supported them during their time of most need.

But from December this year, Australians with chronic diseases who need dental treatment will have their funding cut by this government.

Instead, the government will fund a dental scheme for children, maybe in a year’s time.

Typical of Labor, it is taking with one hand and—after having pocketed the money—in the run to the next budget it may at some time give some of that money back with the other hand. It reminds me very much of the whole debate over youth allowance.

We had the government taking with one hand and eventually being forced to give it back with the other, but only partly. Now we have the same thing with dental care.

As we know, the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme involves Medicare payments for the services provided by dentists, dental specialists, and dental prosthetists in their surgeries.

Patients admitted to hospitals are not covered because they come under a state management system. Eligible public patients can receive up to $4,250 in Medicare benefits for dental services over two consecutive calendar years.

That is, and has been, available to patients who have a chronic medical condition with complex care needs that must be managed by a GP under a specific Medicare care plan.

It is aimed at patients whose oral care is also impacting on their general health. The patient must be referred by their GP to the dentist.

We also need to consider what impact the sudden closure of this program is going to have in a broader sense in relation to the states. Members of this House would certainly be aware that the majority of dental care is funded by state governments, not the Commonwealth government.

This bill does nothing to address the impact this decision will have on dental waiting lists in each of those states.

This issue that the government has deliberately created—not only a funding gap but a time lag for services—is going to add to the waiting lists.

In my electorate in Western Australia, the dental services that are provided are provided by the Public Community Dental Services and the Country Patients Dental Subsidy Scheme.

The Public Community Dental Services operates a 10-chair public dental service in Bunbury in my electorate, and that is funded by the WA government. The Country Patients Dental Subsidy Scheme is also a state government scheme that provides payments to eligible people in country locations where there are participating private dental practices and no public dental clinics.

The Chronic Disease Dental Scheme takes some of the pressure off each of these public dental schemes. The closure of this scheme will add to waiting times.

I would really like to know just what consultation the minister and the government have had with the states and with the state ministers on the inevitable impact these changes will have on them and the services they are providing. Given the history of this Labor government, I will not be making an assumption that this discussion has taken place.

The coalition has raised other concerns in relation to the dental issues. In particular, there are children who will lose access to treatment on 30 November with the closure of the CDDS, including children whose current treatment will not be completed by 30 November. What about those children?

There is the unfunded $2.7 billion cost of the measure the government is proposing.

The schedule of services and fees is not available, as the bill, as we know, is just being rushed through the parliament—which is another habit of this government. Of course, the government is working overtime on that budget surplus issue.

There are real and valid concerns that I have mentioned, and they reflect the lack of a long-term plan for dental care and what is probably the arrogance of the government in failing to work with service providers and the states.

We have proposed an inquiry that would consider all of these issues and seek to provide an integrated and inclusive approach—that is what is needed, given the role of the states.

The Labor scheme announced last month proposed to provide $1.3 billion to state and territory governments for public dental services.

What it failed to announce was where this proposed money was going to come from. It has to be funded. Again, this fits the Labor pattern.

The provision of government funded dental care in Australia has a long and varied history. Of course, the government is not willing to engage in a broader plan. We have made that offer; that has been refused by this government.

And, of course, we are once again debating a small component of dental care. The broader issue here is exactly where the funding is going to come from: the length of the lag time between the end of one program and the start of another, which is at least 14 months, during which people will be unable to access services.

Those are the concerns I have with the bill before the House.