108,000 wait in vain for dental care in public system

dental care

This is an article by Ari Sharp that was recently published in The Sydney Morning Herald – Sydney, New South, Australia.

THE proposed multibillion-dollar plan for a steep rise in the Medicare levy to provide every Australian with dental care has been given the thumbs down by a dentists’ group.

In its final report to the Federal Government, released yesterday, the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission called for a .6 billion-a-year Denticare Australia scheme that would offer universal access to preventive and restorative dental care and dentures.

The plan would be funded by an 0.75 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy, leading to an extra tax bill of 0 for those earning ,000 a year and pushing the basic Medicare levy up to 2.25 per cent of income. The Denticare scheme was the only element of the health blueprint, whose recommendations total up to .3 billion a year, that had a specific funding proposal linked to it.

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, yesterday refused to commit to the scheme, even though, unlike many of the other recommendations of the Commission, there are no concerns the scheme may fall foul of the constitution.

The proposal, which would provide some relief for the more than 650,000 people currently on dental public health waiting lists, would allow people to choose between private and public dental health plans, both of which will be funded by the scheme.

Speaking at the release of the commission’s report in Canberra yesterday, the Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, said that the state of teeth was a significant indicator of income differences in Australia. ‘‘Dental health is becoming an indicator of wealth or poverty,’’ she said.

It was a sentiment shared by Mr Rudd who said that his contact with people had left him distressed at the poor state of dental health.

‘‘We’ve actually got to lift our game here,’’ he said.

The Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, said he would take a wait-and-see approach to the plan, but noted a Medicare levy increase was not Coalition policy.

The recommendation drew opposition from the Australian Dental Association, which said it demonstrated a ‘‘lack of appreciation of dentistry’’. It argued the Denticare scheme would deliver limited services such as teeth cleaning, extractions, fillings and dentures, but neglected more invasive procedures.

‘‘It is not good enough to say that provision of basic services to all will fix dental care delivery,’’ the association president, Neil Hewson, said.

He said the universal access rules will prevent funding from being directed to those most in need.

It was a position backed by the academic Hans Zoellner from the Association for the Promotion of Oral Health, who argued it would force ‘‘stupid clinical decisions’’.

‘‘Depending on your root canal anatomy, Denticare would either provide full service to save a lower front tooth, or alternatively offer nothing but extraction.’’

The Greens called for the Government to embrace the Denticare plan, saying it was ‘‘long overdue’’, but raised fears it would not live up to its promise.

‘‘We are concerned what is being proposed is not a universal dental scheme based on the Medicare model – it relies heavily on subsidised private health insurance,’’ the Greens leader, Bob Brown, said.

In 2007 the previous government expanded Medicare for the 2 million people with chronic diseases to be eligible for a rebate of up to 25 for dental services.

Alongside the Denticare scheme, the commission also recommended a one-year internship scheme prior to full registration for dental health professionals, as well as an expansion of preschool and school dental programs.

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