Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales—Nationals Whip in the Senate) (21:18): I rise to contribute to this debate on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. The coalition supports good investment in dental health. Last December, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a report card on Australia's dental health. In 2010, approximately one-fifth of the population did not have their own teeth, and many others over the age of 65 who did have natural teeth also wore dentures.
I want to take you to the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme—the very scheme introduced by the then health minister Tony Abbott. The scheme was an outstanding success, providing 20 million services to over one million patients since 2007. I recall when this government tried to throw that scheme out. Thankfully, we had the numbers in the Senate to keep it in place. People with chronic health conditions were referred by their doctors to a dentist, who devised a program. An eligible person could access over $4,000 in Medicare benefits over two years. It is a scheme that has worked, but Labor and the Greens will close the scheme on 30 November. In fact, no new services have been provided since 7 September in this scheme.
I want to refer to a letter I received from a young mum from a small town in northern New South Wales near where I live. She says she took her son to a doctor on 12 September only to be told the scheme had been cut off five days earlier. Her son is 20 years old. He is an insulin dependent diabetic and his dental health is poor. He was devastated to find out this program was cut. His mother, a registered nurse, said:
It is amazing how the government wants to raise the health of the nation, particularly for people with chronic disease, as it is such a burden to the people themselves and the health system. Yet they cut something as important as this. Being a registered nurse I know first hand how valuable this scheme was to people.
She is correct.
Here is another story. A man with chronic health issues and on oxygen came to my office to express his disappointment with the scheme closing. What does he do now? Does he go to the back of the queue in the public system?
I must applaud Armidale dentist Dr Chris Cole, who arranged a petition against the closure of the scheme. He has pointed out the follies of throwing these people onto the public health system. In some of the more remote areas, people may need to travel for hours to get to a hospital. They could be sitting there waiting their turn but then someone with a serious dental issue comes in, is treated ahead of them, and then the dentist runs out of time. So off they go on the long trip home and wait for the next call. This is what we face in rural and regional areas of our nation.
The Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is closing, not because it did not work, but because it was established by the man who, hopefully, will be the Prime Minister after the next election. And the greedy Labor government, who could not balance the books of a school fete, then went after those dentists who made a mistake with their paperwork. It was amazing. When the dentists filled in the paperwork to claim this money back off the government for carrying out this work, all sorts of obstacles were placed in front of them, to the tune of millions of dollars, throughout the nation. These dentists were treated like criminals—this from a government that has wasted billions upon billions of dollars. When shadow health minister Peter Dutton attempted to have the closure of this scheme blocked in the other place, naturally the member for New England, Tony Windsor, stuck with the government. That is not surprising when you read his agreement with the government, which states he must consult with them before voting.
Regional Australia is the whipping boy again. In 2009, figures revealed that there were just 24 dentists per 100,000 people in remote and very remote areas, compared with a massive 62 dentists per 100,000 people in major cities. Fewer services are provided in regional areas compared with the cities. Private dental services are provided at the rate of 601 per 1,000 people in cities, compared to just 397 per 1,000 people in remote and very remote areas.
I started in this job back in July 2008. Not long after that we received an increase in our electoral allowance of $4,800. I believe that dental assistance and dental services are most important. I am not a doctor, but people tell me that if you do not have good dental health, then you do not have good health—full stop. I started the Williams Regional Dentistry Scholarship, in conjunction with the National Rural Health Alliance. I sponsor a first-year dental student to the tune of $4,800 a year and I have guaranteed to do that while ever I am in this job.
Olivia Jom of Albury was the first recipient of my scholarship; Jessica Powell of Tamworth was the second; and Alayne White of Cowra is the current scholarship winner. She is doing her first year in dental science at Charles Sturt University in Orange. I have put my money where my mouth is—and I am very proud of that—to help these regional students who wish to become dentists through the costs of their first year at university. We hope that they will return to regional areas.
In 2000 the coalition government introduced the RAMUS Scheme, the Rural Australia Medical Undergraduate Scholarship Scheme, where people from regional areas could receive a $10,000-a-year scholarship to study medicine. We know that those most likely to return to regional areas are those who have grown up in regional areas. Thankfully, at last, we have seen an increase in numbers where more than 1,400 medical students have completed their medical degree under RAMUS. We also need the same in dentistry.
We come to the Labor-Greens scheme, an unfunded $4.1 billion dental program that will not commence until 2014. This means-tested entitlement for children aged between two and 17 will commence 13 months after the closure of a scheme that was working for the benefit of some of these children. It will provide a $1,000 capped benefit over two years for eligible children. What about those children who require more treatment, taking them over the $1,000 cap? What about those children who were part-way through treatment under the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme before the government so cruelly pulled the plug?
Perhaps Minister Plibersek and her Greens colleagues can explain to those children why they must suffer for 12 months. And it gets worse. The scheme for adults will not commence until July 2014. There are already 650,000 people—400,000 adults, according to the government—on public dental waiting lists, but the minister says Labor's plan will provide only 1.4 million additional services over six years. We have 650,000 people on a list, including 400,000 adults, and, as I said, the minister says that Labor's plan will provide only 1.4 million additional services over six years. It will not cope.
We all remember that, in 2008, Labor proposed a Commonwealth Dental Health Program and promised one million services by providing funding to the states and territories. It was revealed in Senate estimates that the Commonwealth did not assess the capacity of the public dental workforce to provide the projected services and that the number delivered may have been significantly less than that promised.
The coalition does not oppose this legislation but places on record its disappointment with the government's handling of the dental needs of Australians.