Dental care has been a much discussed and debated issue in Australian politics. The sick state of the dental health care system, including the immense and prohibitive costs received increased attention after the 2010 election when the Greens demanded that the Gillard Government provide increased funding for dental care. They wanted Denticare, a fully-funded oral healthcare scheme for all.
Today the Greens got some of what they wanted, millions of children and l0w-income earners will be covered under a new dental plan announced by Health Minister Tanya Plibersek.
The Labor Government will spend $2.7 billion on treatment for children whose families are able to apply for Family Tax Benefit Part A. A further $1.3 billion will be spent, helping 5 million people on a low income as well as those in rural areas. All up, that’s $4 billion extra going into mental health at a time when the budget is under much strain.
The $2.7 billion to be spent on treatment for children will allow for families to claim up to $1000 over a two year period for their child’s dental treatment and is available to approximately 3.4 million children. The $1.3 billion will be focused on early treatment to cut down waiting lists for public dental care. A further $200 million will target treatment in rural areas.
The $4 billion dollar package is added to the $515 million that was allocated in the last budget by the Labor Party.
Providing support for oral treatment and care is extremely important and has positive flow-on health benefits for those that are able to seek and obtain preventative treatment. The devastating effects of poor oral health can affect the overall health of people with untreated dental problems and so in itself should be cheered.
What should not be celebrated is the lack of detail over where the money will be coming from for such a large scheme, a multi-billion dollar allocation in fact. Then there’s the matter of what that does to the budget in the future for both the ALP and the Opposition.
What we do know is that the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which now costs upwards of $80 million dollars a month will be scrapped by the Labor Government in favour of this new program. That still leaves a substantial amount of savings that the government must find to keep its promise to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13, not that it’s going to happen anyway. We’re still expecting a significant announcement in education funding which could easily go into the billions of dollars.
The Medicare-funded Teen Dental Plan will also be cut to make way for the new allocation for children.
But what else will be cut from the budget for 2014? We know that a significant amount of funds will still need to be cut to make way for this latest promise and at the same time keep the projected, yet likely fantasy surplus in place.
It’s also entirely possible, even likely that the scheme will not start before it’s cut. On current polling, the Liberal and National Party Coalition is set to take government and after comments today, it would seem that this new funding could be set to be trimmed from the federal budget by an incoming Coalition Government.
Another issue that arises, particularly with the $1000 allocation per eligible child over a two-year period is that in some cases that simply won’t be enough over two years. This will be particularly the case when receiving dental treatment from the private sector with treatment at the dentist, even from the most basic care, is a significant cost burden. There could well be a need for further funds here in the future or for people to dip into their own pockets from time to time or again not seek treatment at all and this could be harmful to health just the same.
The struggles and intricacies of minority government and the balancing of spending priorities for both sides of politics continue with this latest promise, as will the budget woes. However, the overall health benefits are a big win, if it’s not cut by an incoming government that is.