BILLS (Second Reading): Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2021

12 August 2021

I'm speaking from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and I pay my respects. I'm very pleased to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2021 and the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Ballarat. Dental care is an incredibly important part of our healthcare system. We support this amendment and this bill, which will eliminate the lower age limit on the eligibility to the Child Dental Benefits Schedule, extending access to the scheme to children from birth to 17 years of age. This is a very welcome reform and one which builds on the legacy of the Gillard Labor government, which first introduced the dental health reform package back in August 2012. The scheme provides means tested financial support for dental services for children. Families with children aged between two and 17 years old who receive benefits such as the family tax benefit part A, the parenting payment, carer payment and other benefits are eligible for over $1,000 worth of dental care over a two-year period, and that will now be extended to children from birth.

Since Labor introduced this reform, it has provided over $2.3 billion in benefits for more than three million children. This support is life-changing for so many people. We know that promoting and practising good oral hygiene with children from a young age is a strong determinant of dental health into adulthood and later life. As a parent, and now a grandparent, I know a little help convincing kids to keep up good dental health care can go a long way. Some kids rail against tooth-brushing time, for example. We use incentives like superhero toothpaste or a musical toothbrush, and we know that they can go some of the way. I know that Frozen Elsa and Ana toothbrushes are a staple in my granddaughter's household and so many households. A non-traumatising trip to the dentist as a child is something that really does stick with them and starts a lifetime of good habits around dental hygiene.

My son Ryan, after a positive trip to the dentist, was fixated on brushing his teeth for a minute—no more and no less—and he had a clock situated in the bathroom, on the sink, timing that tooth-brushing regime. It was hilarious, but it was effective—something he learned from a great trip to a school dentist. In fact, I heard the member for Macarthur earlier today mention that some children are born with teeth. Well, that same son of mine actually was one of those children. He was born with a tooth. It had to be monitored from birth, because, as we heard from the member for Macarthur, it can cause problems. Indeed, he required dental treatment from birth to when his braces were removed around the time he was 17. Thank goodness that was when my role as being responsible for his dental care was almost done. In fact, that whole period of care was what this bill now includes: birth to 17. So I can tell you that the lessons of the dentist stick with people.

We also know that dental health has flow-on effects for many other aspects of both physical and mental health. Poor dental health has been linked to diabetes, heart and lung disease as well as issues with nutrition and the stress and anxiety associated with the loss of teeth or the pain of dental issues. Those three million kids who have accessed dentistry as a result of Labor's reforms not only had the immediate benefits of dental care but will continue to benefit from having avoided these issues, which we don't often think of when we're headed to the dentist but are so closely linked to our oral health. It's important to note that what this scheme really speaks to is equitable access to health care. As I said, this is a scheme targeted to families who are receiving benefits. The kids who have access to this scheme are the kids with the highest likelihood of having dental health issues but the lowest likelihood of being able to afford dental care. As the member for Macarthur said, extraordinarily, he can tell the income of a child's family by examining their teeth. For families this scheme is the difference between choosing to send their kids to a dentist for a check-up and being able to pay the bills. It's a choice no family should have to make, and with this assistance it's one they don't have to make. It is a remarkable scheme. As we know, even the government continues to benefit by having avoided increased downstream medical costs from these health issues mentioned earlier, so I do commend the government on this bill, which will extend children's eligibility. It is predicted that 45,000 kids a year will have access to dental care each year as a result of this amendment; that's something to be commended.

It's terrific that the government have followed Labor's lead and will extend access to dental care to more children. But Australians know that Labor is the party of health care. We're the party of Medicare. Central to our approach to health care is the understanding that all Australians deserve equal access to a high standard of medical care, regardless of income, location or anything else. Throughout the pandemic, that understanding has driven our approach when it comes to the government moving legislation and taking health measures to the Australian people. We've supported these measure that give high standards of care to Australians. But where measures draw up short, whether in the standard of care or how they can be accessed, we highlight where the government policies need to be improved. I've had the privilege of serving as shadow assistant minister for health and ageing for the last 6½ months. It's been a hectic time to be in this portfolio. What I've found in speaking to practitioners, experts and patient alike is that the focus is on the pandemic. It's vital, of course, to focus on the pandemic, but we've seen other health priorities drop off. It's an interesting time to be working in the health space because, while it feels like health care and health research in particular have never had so much focus and so much airtime, some of the key pieces of the healthcare puzzle are being left out of the conversation.

Those of us in Labor believe a vital part of our role through all of this is to make sure those issues stay on the agenda, so I'm pleased to speak on this amendment which draws the House's attention to the issues of access to health care for our regional, rural and remote communities. What we're hearing time and time again from doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and specialists in regional Australia is a passion for providing the highest standard of care for their patients. They believe wholeheartedly that their communities deserve this standard of care and proper, equitable access to it. Unfortunately, this government is allowing them to fall through the cracks. Over the eight years of this coalition government, there's been inadequate funding for regional and rural health, and we've seen a complete absence of any cohesive strategy to increase access to health practitioners and care. This is no small issue. In far too many cases this has been a matter of life or death. There are people in this country who are driving for hours to see a GP or specialist. A study from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found 20 per cent of rural Australians—20 per cent—were unable to access a GP. We know that 60 per cent of rural Australians can't access a specialist. There are aged-care facilities in this country that have been unable to find a doctor to attend when a resident is sick because there aren't any in the area. We also know that nursing and midwifery positions aren't getting the funding they need from this government, so we're seeing babies being born on the sides of roads. In 2021 this is still happening, and it's happening under a government whose members come into this House every day and declare that they are the party for regional Australia, that they're governing in the interests of regional Australia. Yet we know that regional Australia is constantly left out and left behind when it comes to health care, all on the Morrison government's watch. It's a disgrace.

Having easy access to a GP doesn't just mean you're able to seek help when you're sick; it means having access to the expertise of all kinds of health experts. We know that regular trips to the GP enable the timely diagnosis of more serious illnesses, often when the patients are presenting for a completely different reason. This timely diagnosis allows for better and more effective treatment, and this, in turn, leads to better health outcomes for the individual and decreased health expenditure in the long run. Ease of access to health care can mean the difference between a chronic disease being detected and treated, or being left undetected and worsening. It very often makes all the difference for a person's quality of life.

So Australians living in rural and regional Australia must be given access. It's absolutely a priority and a must for this government. That means training more GPs and providing the right incentives for them to live in regional Australia. It means properly funding and training more nurses, midwives, nurse practitioners and allied health professionals, and encouraging them to work in every corner of the country. It means having a cohesive health strategy, one that understands the local nurse and GP act as a gateway to accessing more tailored health services—and it's vital that these services are easily accessed by patients.

We've seen rates of testing for various diseases, like cancer and diabetes, drop through the pandemic. I will take this opportunity to encourage anyone listening to keep up their regular testing for these diseases. With these rates dropping, it's vitally important, more than ever, that we increase access across the country to health practitioners and get our ongoing [inaudible] back on track. You can't do it without having a GP and other health professionals to go to, and you certainly can't do that if you can't afford the treatment.

I spoke earlier of the importance of the dental benefit schedule in ensuring more equitable access to health care and how core that is to Labor's approach to policy in this area. Unfortunately, we've seen during the Liberals' time in government that the equitable access to health care that Australians pride themselves on is slowly slipping out of grasp. Out-of-pocket expenses are rising, it's more expensive to go to the GP and it's more expensive to access a specialist. And, with the news in the last little while of the results of the MBS review, we know it's now going to be more expensive to have surgery.

The results of the fee hikes under this government are very simple. They mean it's less and less likely that people will go to the doctor to have an illness treated or to get better. A person's income shouldn't determine whether they're able to access treatment. It's a fundamental right that we as Australians sometimes take for granted, but when it's under threat I know we're incredibly protective of it. I've seen that in my life as a nurse and as a trade unionist. Those of us on this side will fight the government every step of the way when it comes to their undermining and underfunding of our healthcare system. So I urge those opposite to utilise the increased focus we've seen on health care through the pandemic to continue that focus and to sort out these issues. We need to act now to make sure that everyone has access to a local GP and other healthcare professionals—access to specialist services. We need to ensure that no-one is turned away from proper care because they can't afford it. The amendment and this bill are welcome, and we support these changes today, but it would be wonderful to see this goodwill extended further and to see the Morrison government really act to better our healthcare system as a whole.

I'll just take my last couple of minutes to give a big call-out to everybody in the ACT today, who we know are going into lockdown as of 5pm this afternoon. I wish everyone well and to take care—especially my colleagues in the House. I know everybody will do the right thing, I know that people will go and get vaccinated and I know that people will be worried, but I ask them to take care.