Speech to Parliament: Dental Health Bill

I speak in support of the amendment to the Dental Benefits Legislation Amendment Bill 2014. It is well known that bad oral health can have a negative impact on a person's quality of life. Untreated dental decay, as well as causing pain and infection, can affect nutritional status and growth and cause issues such as sleep disturbance, poor concentration and other behavioural impacts.

I speak in support of the amendment to the Dental Benefits Legislation Amendment Bill 2014. It is well known that bad oral health can have a negative impact on a person's quality of life. Untreated dental decay, as well as causing pain and infection, can affect nutritional status and growth and cause issues such as sleep disturbance, poor concentration and other behavioural impacts. Addressing oral health in children and young people in particular can significantly improve lifelong oral health, which is a key determinant of health and wellbeing throughout a person's life.

In my electorate of Kingsford Smith, particularly among young children, dental health is a real issue and as such it sparked a local public health initiative to tackle the problem. I am pleased and proud to say that the charity arm of the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs, Souths Cares, launched an oral health care program on 8 April this year, designed to help spread the message of 'clean well, drink well' and the importance of oral hygiene for young people in South Sydney. Accompanied by graduate students from the University of Sydney, lead member of the Souths Cares team and former first grade rugby league player Rhys Wesser launched the program's first session at La Perouse for children from kindergarten to year 2. Rhys began by reading the children an Indigenous Dreamtime inspired story called The healthy tribe: 'I can help my body stay well'. The book aims to educate children about oral health and general health and it focuses on the oral health message 'eat well, drink well and play well'. The story is about a young boy named Marley who talks about his journey gaining the knowledge to live a happy and healthy life, which is told through stories of the Biripi and Worimi people. These tales were developed so that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people could gain the knowledge to improve their health in a culturally appropriate way. I congratulate Souths Cares and all concerned with this organisation for the work they are doing to promote better health care, particularly among young Indigenous students in my community. That is an example of one of the oral healthcare programs that runs in my electorate.

Labor, of course, considers dental health and dental care a vital component of good public health. In this area, it is fair to say, we have put our money where our mouth is. In August 2012, Labor introduced a $4 billion dental program aimed at providing access to government subsidised dental care to millions of children and adults on low incomes or in rural areas. As part of our plan to address increasingly poor oral health among Australians—in particular, low- and middle-income families—the unprecedented six year dental health reform package included $2.7 billion for around 3.4 million Australian children who will be eligible for subsidised dental care; $1.3 billion for around 1.4 million additional services for adults on low incomes, including pensioners, concession card holders and those with special needs, who will have better access to dental care in the public system; and $225 million for dental capital and workforce, which will be provided to support expanded services for people living in outer metropolitan, regional, rural and remote areas.

This bill will create a waiver provision for the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme and make a number of amendments to the operation of the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. When Labor was in government an audit of the activity of the CDDS detected a high rate of noncompliance with the reporting requirements for dentists. As a result of this audit, activity debts were raised against dentists found to be noncompliant. The last speaker, from the other side, mentioned that it was his belief that this was one of the most successful healthcare programs that had ever been run in Australia. My experience from talking to GPs in our community was that, unfortunately, the CDDS was being rorted by a small number of doctors and dentists. I spoke to a number of GPs in my community who gave examples of people requesting certificates to say they had chronic dental diseases and required dental treatment under the scheme through Medicare when in fact they did not fit that category but had heard from others that there was an opportunity to get free dental health care through this program. That was uncovered in an audit of this program that was run by the previous government. That is why the program was shut down. It was found that taxpayers' valuable dollars were being wasted—admittedly in a small number of cases—and there was no ability to put in place measures and other safeguards to rein in the rorting that was occurring in the scheme. That is why Labor acted to replace that program and make changes to the program. On the whole, I think the targeted program that Labor put in place, particularly to target those people on low to middle incomes and children, has been effective.

This bill also makes amendments to the Dental Benefits Act and the Health Insurance Act to align compliance powers and make those powers applicable to the CDBS. It also amends both acts so that the Professional Services Review scheme can be applied to dental services provided under the CDBS. The CDBS commenced on 1 January 2014 and provides to those aged from two to 17, who meet a means test, access to up to $1,000 in benefits over two calendar years for basic dental treatment. This program is an investment in prevention. We know that the oral health of our children is the best predictor of oral health as adults. We know that children from low-income families and low-socioeconomic areas have inferior dental health to those from more affluent areas. That is why this scheme was targeted and means tested for children who fit those criteria. The CDBS replaces the Medicare Teen Dental Plan and provides more comprehensive coverage through a greater range of services to a larger group of children.

Labor also takes very seriously the issue of inappropriate professional behaviour and supports the application of compliance powers as well as the operation of the Professional Services Review scheme. The dental health reform package that Labor implemented is delivering a better and fairer system of dental care for Australians. It is an accessible and affordable scheme that focuses on prevention to deliver future improvements in Australia's oral health. From its commencement on 1 January 2014 until 1 March 2014, over 84,000 children received dental treatment under the CDBS, including over 26,000 children from outside of major cities. That is proof positive that this scheme is working and delivering its intended benefits without the rorting that we saw under the previous scheme that was put in place by the Howard government. In 2013, over 200,000 public dental patients received treatment because of Labor's program and its funding of the public dental waiting list blitz. It is because of Labor that over 280,000 adults now have better oral health as a result of free or subsidised care under the dental health reform package.

I am proud of Labor's improvements to dental health. I am proud that Labor has increased accessibility to dental health through a targeted scheme to ensure that low-income families in this country get the necessary support to access basic dental healthcare services and, importantly, that children, particularly those from low- to middle-income families and low-socioeconomic areas, have access to those dental schemes. It is a great legacy from the previous Labor government. This bill will tidy up the deficiencies in the Howard government's Chronic Dental Disease Scheme and will ensure that the legacy is removed forever. I commend the bill, with the amendment, to the House.

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