PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: We have sat here for 15 minutes listening to the member for Moreton, but he barely, if at all, discussed any reason as to why the government are cutting the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which is the central focus of this bill, the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. I think the reason that he did not want to discuss that is that he is embarrassed by it. He knows that by cutting this scheme there will be hundreds of thousands of people who will no longer be able to get the dental care they so desperately need. That is why he does not want to discuss it.
I spoke on the disallowance motion concerning this package, so I do not want to go over all of the arguments which I presented in that debate. What I would like to do in the time I have available is to quickly summarise some of the points which I made in relation to this legislation and add some additional new material and particularly some comments constituents of mine have brought to my attention in the intervening period.
Mr Deputy Speaker, as you would be aware, the effects of this government’s dental package is threefold. Firstly, it abolishes the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme almost immediately. Secondly, it ensures that there is absolutely no coverage for the people who were benefiting from that scheme until, at the very least, July 2014. Thirdly, it holds up hope—and hope only—that there will be a replacement scheme from July 2014. I say ‘hope only’ because there is in fact no money allocated towards that scheme and there are no details in relation to it. So, really, it is just an election commitment. So they are abolishing a scheme immediately and putting up what is really just an election commitment which does not have any money attached to it as yet.
The Chronic Disease Dental Scheme has been a tremendously scheme. It has treated 1.5 million Australians who have had chronic problems with their mouths. There have been over 20 million consultations since the beginning of this scheme, which Tony Abbott introduced when he was health minister. Importantly, it treated the mouth for the first time in the same way that we treat the rest of the body from a public policy perspective—that is, that there is a universal healthcare system for your mouth as there is for the rest of your body.
So why does the government want to close this scheme down given that it has been successful and it has benefited so many Australians over the course of the last few years? The government have given us three reasons for closing down this scheme. Firstly, they say that the costs have overblown for the scheme. It is true that it has become more expensive than what was initially envisaged. The reason that it has become more expensive is not that it has been managed ineffectively—like we saw with the school hall program, for example, where we school halls were built for twice the cost of what they should have been built. This scheme has become more expensive than forecast because the program is a demand driven program and more people have sought assistance through this program that what we initially anticipated. That is the reason that costs are greater than what was initially anticipated.
The cost per consultation has in fact actually come down quite considerably. So over time this program has become more efficient rather than less efficient. The cost has gone down from $2,225 per patient to $1,117 per patient. So it has actually been a successful program. More people have benefited from it than we had anticipated, and the cost per patient had been coming down. So the argument that the government put forward that ‘The costs have blown out and therefore we are shutting it down’ does not stack up. If that was the real reason, that the government are concerned about the overall cost to the budget, then why not put on the table some amendments to the program to maybe limit the type of procedures that would be covered by the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme? That would be consistent with a concern about the cost blowing out and we would have sat down with the government to try to work through that.
The second reason the government has stated as to why they want to close down the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is that the program is untargeted—that is, that millionaires are getting access to this particular program. But the figures do not demonstrate this. In fact, 80 per cent of all the people who have benefited from this scheme are concession cardholders. Indeed, this evidence is backed up by Associate Professor Hans Zoellner, who is Chairman of the Association for the Promotion of Oral Health at the University of Sydney. He says:
Government claims that the system is used extensively by millionaires and that it is greatly rorted, are not supported by the available evidence. All statistical evidence is that the scheme has been used primarily by people on low incomes, and that patients have received the type of treatment expected after a prolonged period of without service.
That is what one of the health experts from the University of Sydney says: it has not been used extensively by millionaires, as the government claims, but largely low-income people have benefited from this scheme. Indeed, even if some wealthier people have accessed this scheme over the years, that is perfectly consistent with the universal health system that we have for Medicare. Under Medicare it does not matter how much money you earn, you can go to a public hospital and get treatment.
If the government is saying that we have to scrap the program because millionaires can access the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, the logical implication is that the government is also looking at the Medicare scheme and is going to either means-test it or somehow scrap it. That would be the logically consistent argument if you were to follow that through. That is not the right reason for them to do this.
The final reason the government has put forward for closing the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme is that they say the program has been rorted. Yes, there have been some irregularities in the operation of the program, just like there probably is in every entitlement program across the country, but no amount of red tape or oversight of bureaucracies can ever eliminate people being fraudulent. But in this particular program the number of irregularities was only one in 1,500, which is actually quite a low figure and again is consistent with my understanding of the irregularities with the general Medicare program. This argument does not stack up.
What are the government proposing through this package to replace the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme? They are proposing the promise, as I mentioned before, that by July 2014 there will be more money given to public dentists in order to treat patients who have previously benefited from the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. That is the promise. What they are offering for certain is nothing in the short term—absolutely nothing until at least July 2014. Then there is a promise that something might be offered from July 2014 if they find the money for it, and currently there is no money allocated towards that scheme. Even if the government did find the money they are promising to put towards reducing the waiting lists for public dentists, it would still not have the same sort of impact. It would not be sufficient.
I go back to Associate Professor Hans Zoellner from the University of Sydney, who said:
Government intends only a 30% increased public dental spending, which is very much less than would be needed to satisfy even current demand, so people with chronic disease will not receive timely or comprehensive care needed.
Again the verdict from the expert is that if the government are re-elected at the next election and if they do find the money to invest towards the scheme which they are promising the Australian people, it will still not be sufficient to cover even the existing waiting list, let alone all the new people who will be on the waiting list after the abolition of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme.
Since we have been debating this in the parliament, I have had many constituents come up to me concerned about the axing of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. I would like to just read out a few of those comments from constituents of mine. First of all, we had Anya Filek of Wantirna South. She is a young person, a disabled pensioner, who relies on the scheme to help her with dental problems relating to her chronic illness. She says:
I must visit my dentist every four months and now that the scheme is gone I will no longer be able to afford it. It is so hard being a young person on a pension and being unwell. They cannot leave us out in the cold like this.
Also, I refer to Adriana and Joe Rapisarda, who are both pensioners living in Bayswater. Adriana has lupus and as a result must have regular dental work to prevent gum disease. She has been a recipient of the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme for the past two years and has to get vital work done every three or four months.
Similarly, her husband, also a pensioner, uses the scheme, as he has had a stroke and heart attack. He needs dental work to limit the harmful effects of medication on his gums. He is therefore utilising the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. That is going to be axed now. He is a pensioner.
The member for Fraser is supporting this, Mr Deputy Speaker, so that these two pensioners will no longer be able to get the type of dental care which they so desperately need.
Kevin McMurrugh of Ferntree Gully, another constituent of mine, he also will suffer as a result of these cuts. He says:
I cannot believe the government would have reached this decision suddenly or without due consideration. We are going to have many thousands of people who will no longer be able to afford dental care, me included.
A Rowville man, who did not want to be named, said that the cuts to the scheme would be a devastating blow to him financially. He had already battled Paget’s disease and bowel cancer and was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. He said he will be unable to afford the vital dental work he requires on an ongoing basis as a part of his recovery. He says: ‘I am thoroughly disgusted with the way we are currently being treated by this government,’ which I think is a very accurate summation.
I think that every member of the government should reflect on some of those people I have read out, who will be affected by the cuts to the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. People like Mr and Mrs Rapisarda. They are pensioners, they have been ill and they have had heart attacks, and because of their medication they get come problems or teeth problem. So the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme can help them out. They will no longer be able to afford to get the vitally needed dental work they require.
I also call on the Independents, who will have the casting vote in relation to whether or not this scheme survives. I ask them to consider the likes of people like Mr and Mrs Rapisarda, like Ms Filek and like Mr McMurrugh, from my electorate, who will no longer be able to afford the dental work they so desperately need.
I think that the real reason that the government is cutting this scheme and why they are not putting any money towards any new scheme is that they have so categorically blown the budget with so many wasted programs that they are now desperately cutting absolutely every possible thing they can find in order to try to get to above budget surplus. There have been many lows for this government over the last five years, but the cutting of this scheme I think will go down as one of the lowest of them all.