Issue #1567 3 October 2012
Save Medicare coverage for dental health
The Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme (MCDDS) has been very successful, with more than one million people receiving treatment since it was introduced by the Howard government in 2007. The MCDDS provides for people with chronic disease to be treated by their dentist, dental specialist or dental prosthetist under Medicare. They are either bulkbilled or can claim a Medicare rebate on their fees. Instead of extending the scheme to include the whole population, the Gillard Labor government is shutting it down. The legislation has already passed through the Lower House and will be before the Senate this week.
As from December 1, chronic disease sufferers will have to pay the full fee for private dental services or join the 650,000 people already on waiting lists around Australia for public dental treatment.
The scheme covers people with chronic disease such as diabetes, HIV-AIDS, cancer, immune compromise or bleeding disorders. They have conditions or are undergoing treatment that could affect their dental health or which could be made more serious by dental disease.
The government claims it is closing the scheme because it is being rorted by participating dentists. Yet the scheme has a low complaint rate of just one complaint per 1,500 patients, and the relatively small number of offending dentists are being followed up by the appropriate authorities. After all, Medicare was not shutdown because a few doctors rorted it.
According to the National Advisory Council on Dental Health, 80 percent of MCDDS patients are concession card holders, meaning they are on low incomes and amongst the most disadvantaged in the community. They simply cannot afford private dental services and with the closure of the scheme will be left without the necessary care.
The savings might make a contribution towards a (totally unnecessary) budget surplus in 2013, but in the long run they are a false economy. Failing to detect and address problems in their early stages can result in serious illness and even hospitalisation. Providing universal access to dental services under Medicare would considerably reduce demand on hospital beds from avoidable complications of untreated dental conditions.
The closure of the scheme was announced last month, in a package negotiated with the Greens. (See Editorial, Guardian No 1563, 05-09-2012) The package allocates an additional $1.3 billion to states and territories over four years from July 2013, for the expansion of public dental services. It is conditional on them maintaining current spending levels. So it is hardly guaranteed.
It also provides for an estimated 3.4 million children from low income families to have access to basic dental services of up to $1,000 over two years under Medicare, commencing January 2014.
Instead of closing the Medicare Chronic Diseases Dental Scheme, the government should be expanding it to include the entire Australian population under Medicare.
More than 650,000 people are on the public dental waiting list
35% of Australians say they cannot afford to go to the dentist
The average wait for public dental care is 27 months
The oral health of Australian adults rank second-worst among OECD
Next article – Three killers and a blurry background
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