Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s pledge to subsidise dental care for pensioners and Senior's Health Care Card holders if elected to government should be welcomed. But it is only a first step toward the kind of universal public dental care we need.
Labor's plan will cover aged pensioners and eligible retirees for up to $1000 in dental care costs every two years. Shorten described it as part of a "vision of universal access to dental care."
He said Labor's scheme — essentially an extension of the Child Dental Benefit Scheme introduced by the Julia Gillard Labor government in 2014 — would cost $2.4 billion.
But according to Grattan Institute health experts Stephen Duckett and Matt Cowgill, writing in The Conversation on April 30, while the policy is a welcome advance “both sides [of politics] should go further.
“The current system is a mess. It leaves many Australians without timely access to dental care, which only causes more painful and costly problems down the track.
“Australians should demand their politicians introduce a universal dental care scheme. As with Medicare, this would ensure all Australians have access to subsidised basic dental care, including check-ups and treatment for tooth decay.
“When Australians need to see a GP, Medicare picks up all or most of the bill. When they need to see a dentist, most Australians are on their own.
“The result is that about two million Australian adults each year don't get dental care when they need it most because of the cost.”
Most relatively healthy, especially younger, people would usually spend more on dental bills than on general medical treatment, at least until they get older.
Many delay trips to the dentist because of the cost, often resulting in much more serious and costly dental problems later on.
Moreover, lack of timely treatment for dental disease can lead to other, possibly dangerous, health issues down the track.
In short, dental and general health are integrally related, and a genuine, effective, universal public health scheme needs to fully integrate the two areas.
Green Left Weekly campaigns for a transformation of our health system. We believe this is a vital part of fundamentally changing society from one based on private profit to one based on human need and environmental sustainability.