Last November, days before losing office, the Howard government made significant changes to a scheme which provided some Medicare funding for dental care. First introduced four years ago, the scheme originally provided $240 in rebates for some dental services. In November that figure was increased to $2125 per year, targeting people with life threatening chronic disorders where dental health is a contributing factor.
As of April Fool’s Day, applications for the funding are no longer being accepted. Those who are already in the system will continue to receive funding until the end of June.
It has been well known for quite some time now that diabetes, some heart conditions, some cancers, and other conditions have demonstrated links to dental health, so it makes sense that appropriate dental treatment should be funded through Medicare. In fact, I would argue that all dental care should be eligible for Medicare rebates for the simple reason that dental health is an essential component of good general health.
The new Federal Government campaigned heavily on dental care as part of its election platform. It promised to reinstate the Commonwealth Dental Scheme, which had been discontinued by the Howard Government when it was first elected in 1996. So, in place of the Medicare rebate, the new Commonwealth Dental Scheme, along with the new Teen Dental Scheme, will commence from the First of July. These programs operate by handing the money to the States to deliver the service.
While it is a good thing to honor an election commitment, and a good thing to boost the funds provided to the States to pay for public dental services, to do so at the cost of losing the Medicare rebate is actually a step backwards. Firstly, fewer than 10% of dentists work in the public system, so there just isn’t the capacity to treat everyone in a timely fashion. Secondly, far from the $2125 available to an individual patient through the Medicare scheme, the new funding equates to less than $50 if divided up among the chronic patients, or less than $5 if divided among all patients.
Yes, the Public Dental services need and deserve more funding, but the Medicare program addresses a specific area of need which is unlikely to be met any other way. And, as always, it’s the most vulnerable people, that is pensioners and low income families, who will suffer the most.
That doesn’t exactly sound like a Labor Party principle, does it?