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It was a Jessica Simpson sort of health budget

Amy Stockwell, who works at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne, was at the Budget lock up; she had to fight like a hungry seagull to get her hands on the health papers. And ultimately it was all a big disappointment for anyone who appreciates the critical role of dental health to general health and a fairer health system.

She writes:

“Jessica Simpson told Ellen DeGeneres last week that she only brushes her teeth three times a week for fear that they will become “too slippery”.  She simply uses Listerine and “sometimes…[her] sweater” to keep her grin in shape.

So, it turns out that Jessica Simpson would love the 2010/11 Budget.  She isn’t that interested in dental care, she is scared of doing things that might end up a bit slippery, and she’ll rinse things off rather than taking action.

It was a big Budget for health.  The Portfolio Budget Statement could have knocked out a few teeth (in fact, it nearly did.  There was only one copy of the Health PBS in my room of the Treasury lock up, which stakeholders fought over like seagulls on a chip).

And while we all welcome investments in community care, nursing and the acute end of town, dental funding got a scant half-page.

There was reference to the hitherto unfunded Commonwealth Dental Health program (funding for States and territory governments for one million additional public dental services over three years – which in health budget terms is the smallest slice of the most meager pie), which can’t be funded until the previous Government’s scheme is dismantled by subordinate legislation being held up in the Senate.  And a Medicare Teen Dental Plan, which also can’t be funded until the Senate makes the money available from the previous scheme.

Happily, there is money to implement some pilots for mobile dental services to some Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In short, reference to dental funding in the 2010/11 Budget was predominately an apology for a pesky hostile Senate.  Sorry, we didn’t do anything meaningful about teeth; the Senate stole our sweater.  Like a conversation with Jessica Simpson, this year’s dental care budget is confused and misses the point.

In squibbing on dental funding in this Budget, the Australian Government has missed another opportunity to junk a moribund system and significantly improve the lives of millions of Australians.  Sure, there are currently some programs and provisions for teens and Indigenous Australians, which are very important.  In Victoria, the Commonwealth Enhanced Primary Care dental program (which will be replaced by new Commonwealth Dental Health Program if the Senate stops being fresh) and state prioritization of some marginalized groups provides some timely dental care to the few deemed eligible.

But far too many are waiting far too long for subsidised dental treatment (the standard waiting period for dental treatment in Rosebud is 41 months).

The Government (Feds and the State) can suggest that making a few gestures/concessions at the pointy end is sufficient, but research from UNSW has shown that almost 60 per cent of welfare participants cannot access dental treatment or an annual checkup for children.

The consequences can be seen in the one quarter of all Australians and a staggering 57% of Indigenous Australians with untreated tooth decay (AIHW 2007).

If the Government is serious about health prevention, addressing chronic disease and closing the gap, they need to drill down into dental policy.

Along with severe pain and the spread of infection that could land you in an emergency room, untreated decay is a gateway to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and low-weight pre-term babies.

These health outcomes compound disadvantage, increase welfare dependence and create another generation who are prevented from joining in the social and economic life of the nation.”

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