Calling for promised but missing dental care funding at the start of Dental Health Week

Monday, August 3, 2015

Unless the Commonwealth Government provides continued and adequate funding for dental care, Australian's dental health will continue to suffer, according to the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association. An ad hoc Band-Aid approach simply will not do. The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is getting greater and is obvious every time they smile.

The Commonwealth’s National Partnership Agreement (NPA) was intended to deliver $1.3 billion over four years starting from 1 July last year. But so far the Commonwealth’s pledge has amounted to a 12 month delay, a nearly 25% cut to the 2015–16 allocation from $200 million to $155 million and the wiping of the remaining $1.15 billion from the forward estimates. This means fewer people will be treated and they will wait longer for the opportunity of dental care.

Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley pointed to a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for constructive reform… to achieve a better integrated system with services working in co-operation.” Beginning this process by stripping more than $1 billion funding from dental services providing care to the most vulnerable in our society and in under serviced areas is not a good way to start.

While access to the Child Dental Benefit Schedule has been rolled over to another year, the uncertainty of its future, along with the further NPAs, makes future planning difficult. This on-off funding cycle does not make for a sustainable system. It is difficult to put resources into good models of care with preventive components if there is only a one year time scale.

It is also disappointing that the Commonwealth decided to cease funding for the Voluntary Dental Graduate Year Program and the Voluntary Oral Health Therapist Program, both of which target workforce shortages in rural and remote areas.

Dental health is one clear avenue for prevention that is integral to good overall health and requires a strong partnership between the Commonwealth and all states and territories.

In addition to improving the health and wellbeing of Australians, there is an important economic element to take dental health seriously, with dental conditions underlying approximately 18% of preventable hospitalisations for acute conditions (and around 8% of preventable hospital admissions overall). The reform discussion must also include consumers who incur significant out-of-pocket costs, being responsible for nearly 60% of the $8.7 billion spent on dental care every year.

The compartmentalisation in viewing the mouth separately from the rest of the body must stop. Peoples’ ability to work, eat, play and socialise—their quality of life and wellbeing— are all affected by oral health.

While hope is not a strategy, we look forward to the constructive reform process suggested by Minister Ley so that we can design a system that does improve the oral health and hence, general health, of Australians.

The AHHA represents Australia’s largest group of health care providers in public hospitals, community and primary health sectors and advocates for universal high quality healthcare to benefit the whole community.

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Alison Verhoeven, Chief Executive

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