The Guardian 2 March, 2005

Dental services should be
covered by Medicare

Dental services in Australia are at crisis point. Chronic under-funding at both state and federal level and the decline of graduating dentist numbers plus the lack of oral health professionals in general are barring tens of thousands of people from access to oral health. Although the situation is worse in NSW, the need is for a national dental health service covered by Medicare.

Horrific examples of pain and trauma abound among people unable to afford to go to a dentist. Mild toothaches that have developed into serious medical conditions; aged pensioners forced to live on baby food; people having to patch dentures with glue, douse abscesses with battery acid and force aspirin into cavities.

In NSW dental hospitals more than 100 children every month have to be put under general anaesthetic for oral surgery most from low income suburbs and rural areas. Four children on average every month have what is called a "full clearance procedure", when all their teeth are pulled out because all are damaged.

Waiting lists for public hospital dental clinics are counted in years. And children's braces have become an indication of the level of income of their parents. Households on average incomes and lower mostly have no choice; they simply don't have the money.

One family The Guardian spoke to must pay $300 a month to an orthodontist until the required $6000 is reached for the braces on their daughter's teeth.

They point out that a decision had to be made to dig into their savings to give their child the chance of oral health into adulthood. It was outrageous, they said, that access to dental services isn't universal and free under the umbrella of Medicare.

The NSW Council of Social Service has called for a national summit to resolve the crisis in light of the fact that people in NSW are waiting up to eight years for treatment in the public system and that the number of children needing treatment in hospital for dental work has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

"The poverty of the public dental health system is scandalous and is causing avoidable pain and poor dental outcomes for large numbers of low-income households", said the Council's director, Gary Moore. "The NSW Premier should gather the other state and territory leaders and thrash out a solution with [Prime Minister] John Howard."

The trouble is the Howard Government is not interested in a solution being, as it is, a part of the problem. In 1997, less than a year after it was elected, the Howard Government scrapped the national dental funding scheme which had successfully reduced waiting times for treatment.

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