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Threat to public dental programme is far too great to ignore

16 October, 2008

The future of accessible dental and oral health care for pensioners and low income earners is in jeopardy with the impasse between political parties on Commonwealth oral health programs, according to the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association (AHHA).

The AHHA is the only national body representing public healthcare, including oral and dental health services.

"The AHHA is deeply concerned that the Government’s new dental program is unable to proceed because the Senate is blocking closure of the previous Coalition Government’s non-means-tested Medicare program for courses of dental care for people with chronic diseases,” said Prue Power, Executive Director of the AHHA.

The AHHA is urging the Australian Health Ministers Advisory Committee (AHMAC) to agree on solutions to this problem at its meeting in Sydney. As long as the impasse remains, much-needed initiatives in state and territory public dental services will be lost.

"At no point in negotiations between the Federal Government, states and territories was the Commonwealth Dental Health Program (CDHP) tied to the closure of the Medicare scheme. In fact, states and territories had commenced implementation plans based on the CDHP funds, including some Indigenous health programs already budgeted and underway. The Federal Government even signed off on the implementation plans in July, so states and territories have been caught completely off guard with the consequence of key initiatives now under threat.

"For too long oral health has been invisible to the Commonwealth. The Medicare chronic disease program was very ineffective in providing accessible care for people whose oral health was affecting their chronic illness. In the past year with so-called 'enhancements' to the program, the main effect has been to open up the scheme to excessive wastage. Over the coming months and years we will see a massive budget blow-out on costly treatments of doubtful value such as crowns and orthodontics that have little or no impact on chronic medical conditions.

"By tightening the criteria for the Medicare dental scheme around the types of treatment provided and the most critical chronic illnesses, the Government could save more than enough money over the next few years to implement both programs. This can only be achieved if all sides of politics support the principles of universality and ensuring priority access for those Australians who most need oral health care but can least afford it,” said Power.

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