Fluoride Action Network

Labor plans $4bn expansion of dental service

Source: The Age | August 30th, 2012 | By Mark Metherell
Location: Australia

LOW-INCOME adults can look forward to a $4 billion expansion in public dental services beginning in 2014 – if Labor wins the next election – but will lose a more lavish scheme focused on the chronically ill from the end of this year.

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said the new scheme would combat the increasingly poor oral health of low- and middle-income families.

The six-year plan results from an agreement with the Greens, enabling the axing of the current chronic disease dental scheme.

The arrangements will provide $2.7 billion for 3.4 million children to get treatment from public or private dentists, capped at $1000 over two years, starting from January 2014.

”We will have a generation of kids for whom going to the dentist is as easy as going to the doctor,” Ms Plibersek said.

Children would get check-ups and all basic treatment including fillings, the sealing of

fissures and fluoride treatment, she said.

Low-income adults including pensioners will be eligible for 1.4 million additional services under the scheme but this element will not start until July 2014 and will not include access to private dentists.

Ms Plibersek said the current Medicare chronic disease dental scheme, introduced by former health minister Tony Abbott and now costing $960 million a year, would be shut by the end of this year. Prime Minister Julia Gillard said there would be ”a large saving” through closing the chronic disease dental scheme – putting her at odds with Ms Plibersek, who said because the old scheme had been slated for closure since Labor came to power, there was no money in the forward estimates for it.

”There is not billions of dollars in the budget for this,” Ms Plibersek said. ”So there is no money to be redirected … we need to find a new $4 billion, and we can.”

She said the money would be accounted for in the budget update later in the year. ”We are determined to get the budget back into surplus,” she said.

The only offset appears to be a saving of $377 million over the budget period by the replacement of the Medicare Teen Dental Plan. Ms Plibersek said the funding included $1.3 billion to states and territories to expand services for low-income adults but was dependent on the maintaining current spending. Another $225 million was targeted for more dental facilities and dentists and therapists. The policy, which Ms Plibersek announced jointly with Greens health spokesman Richard Di Natale, won wide support from dental, consumer and public health groups.

Senator Di Natale said enabling children to see private dentists would reduce demand on public dental clinics, opening the way for more adult patients. He said the Greens had ensured the scheme would be legislated to start in January 2014, to have it established before any possible change in the Senate in July 2014.

The president of the Australian Dental Association, Shane Fryer, said the focus of the federal funding on children and those in need ”may also result in a long-term saving for government and the community by minimising long-term deterioration in dental health”.

With Michelle Grattan