Dental Health Services

(1.55pm, Parliament House Sydney)

New South Wales has the lowest funding per capita for public dental services of any state or territory—only $23.20 per person. In comparison, Tasmania spends $54.61 per person. Oral health impacts on quality of life and other health concerns and is one of the greatest areas of health inequity. Oral health is a major concern to low income constituents of my electorate and the constituents of all members—pensioners, Housing New South Wales tenants, boarders and lodgers, homeless people and disadvantaged and low income people as these people have significantly worse oral health and the most difficulty getting dental treatment. They report painful dental conditions that prevent them from being able to eat, causing significant embarrassment and shame.

I have heard of dreadful situations where people have to blend all their food so they can eat it or they cannot go to a cafe or eat with other people because their teeth are so bad. Some have told me that they never open their mouths or smile, and keep away from other people because they know their mouth smells from an infection or disease. These individuals say they are not able to afford dental services and have to wait long periods for public dental treatment. While some constituents have chronic deterioration, others have suffered serious accidents or injuries that have left them with major oral health problems.

The majority of oral health care is provided by private dentists; however, people on low incomes may not be able to afford fees for private dental services. Sydney Dental Hospital has long waits for dental services for low income earners and does not provide more complex procedures. More than 132,000 people are on waiting lists for public dental services in New South Wales, with more than half waiting at least six months for treatment. Although more than half of the population are eligible for public dental services only 13 per cent of New South Wales dentists work in the public sector. As the member for Sydney, I have consistently called for expanded public dental services for people in need and for an oral health policy, expanded funding for public dental services, more public dentists and public clinics and priority to low income and disadvantaged groups.

The New South Wales Government provides most public dental services with special programs for school-aged children. There is limited Commonwealth funding for specific programs such as the Teen Dental Program and Enhanced Primary Care for people with complex health needs, for example, people with HIV. I commend those people and organisations who are improving access to dental services by organising special programs. Mission Australia's Dental Clinic provides much-needed dental care for chronically homeless people by staff funded by New South Wales Health, the only service in my electorate that treats homeless people. Homelessness service providers link homeless people into this clinic or refer people to private dentists if they fit the tight eligibility requirements for Medicare payment. The Dental Hospital's special needs programs for people in Juvenile Justice Centres and Boarding Houses are vital for these groups.

Filling the Gap is a charity recruiting volunteer dentists to provide dental treatment in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and the National Dental Foundation links dentists up with opportunities to provide free dental services for people in need. Others, such as the Australian Society of Orthodontists, the Give a Smile program and Red Cross Dental days for refugees recognise the gap in dental services. However, public dental services and volunteer programs cannot hope to meet need. People who hold government concession cards are eligible for public dental services. However, there seems to be no good reason why there should not be universal access to dental treatment as with Medicare. Even with these restrictions on access there are delays of months or years for public dental treatment, with the system unable to cope with the high demand for services due to lack of funds, limited public clinics, and workforce shortages.

The National Health and Hospital Reform Commission recommended a national Denticare scheme for universal access to basic oral health care as a key priority. I ask that the New South Wales Government lobby through the Council of Australian Governments for a national public dental program. Until there is a national system, I call upon the New South Wales Government to increase funding for public dental services so that New South Wales comes up to the funding levels of other States. We need strategies with more flexible service models to enable more dentists to provide public treatment. Health and community service workers need training to identify and refer oral health concerns. We need more emphasis on preventing dental problems.