Health minister Tanya Plibersek has secured a deal with the Australian Greens that guarantees the passage of the Government’s changes to private health insurance in return for $165 million for dental care. However, the minister has clarified that the money will not be spent under the current Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, and will not be allocated until she has received a report from the National Advisory Council on Dental Health, which was established in September last year.
“The Greens and the Government have shared for a long time a commitment to improve the dental care of Australians. And indeed, the Dental Council that is currently undertaking work on how we might improve the dental situation in Australia is something that has come about because of the cooperation between the Government and the Greens,” the minister said in a press conference on Wednesday.
The Greens see the deal as a first step towards bringing all dentistry under Medicare. “We are now well on our way to putting dental into Medicare,” said Greens MP Adam Bandt, at the time.
“Access to dental care is one of the biggest areas of inequality in Australia,” added Greens’ spokesperson for health, Senator Richard Di Natale.
“Although we are pleased with this outcome, the Greens will not waver in our commitment to a universal Denticare scheme, beginning in this year’s budget. This is a solid down payment on year one of Denticare but we will continue to work with the Government to achieve this outcome.”
Minister Plibersek made it clear that her plans for the current Medicare Dental scheme to either be closed down or substantially altered: “I have been clear with the Greens Party and very clear in public, including with all of you, that I believe that the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is very poorly targeted, that it doesn’t achieve good value for money, that I am very concerned about some of the spending patterns that I see in the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, and I will still seek to close this Chronic Disease Dental Scheme or substantially alter it so that it is means tested, so that it is targeted.”
However, when asked whether that would involve means-testing Medicare, she avoided the question by saying, “Dental care has never been part of Medicare. We know at the moment that most people pay about 60 per cent of the cost of their dental care. The costs of providing for their own health care in other parts of the budget are much lower, so it is very important that we make sure that the lowest income people can afford to see a dentist.
“We know about 20 per cent of Australians are saying that they’ve got poor health, dental health, and we do want to see an improvement in the services that are available to that group of people.
“But that won’t be in an open-slather way.
“Adding dental to Medicare in the way that some people have suggested including in the past the Greens have suggested would be a cost of about five or $6 billion a year, and we are certainly not in the position to add five or $6 billion a year to the health budget, and in fact we wouldn’t even have the dental work force to meet that need should we make that change overnight.”
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