Australia should introduce a Medicare-style universal insurance scheme for primary dental care, to ensure all Australians can go to the dentist when they need to.
A universal scheme would cost an extra $5.6 billion a year, could be paid for in part by a rise in the Medicare levy, and should be phased in over 10 years.
It’s needed because about 2 million Australians who required dental care in the past year either didn’t get it or delayed getting it because of the cost – and the poor and disadvantaged are most likely to miss out on care.
This is because most spending on dental care comes straight out of patients’ pockets.
When Australians need to see a GP, Medicare picks up all or most of the bill. But when they need to see a dentist, Australians are on their own.
The consequence is widespread poor oral health. About a quarter of Australian adults say they avoid some foods because of the condition of their teeth; for low-income people, it’s about a third. Low-income people are more likely to have periodontal disease, untreated tooth decay, or missing teeth.
Bad oral health has painful and costly consequences. Oral health conditions can contribute to other health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. Most oral health conditions are preventable, yet people often end up going to a GP or hospital emergency department to be treated for conditions that could have been arrested with earlier care.
Existing public dental schemes are inadequate, uncoordinated, and inequitable across states and territories. Most states have waiting lists of well over a year for public dental care – and if people need to wait a year for care, their conditions are only going to get worse.
The Commonwealth Government should announce that it will take responsibility for funding primary dental care – just as it takes responsibility for primary medical care.
There’s no compelling medical, economic, legal or logical reason to treat the mouth so differently from the rest of the body.
But it would be impractical to move to a universal scheme overnight. It would cost a lot of money – about $5.6 billion in extra spending each year – and more dentists and oral health professionals would need to be trained locally or recruited from overseas.
So, the Commonwealth should announce a roadmap to a universal scheme, including plans to expand the dental health workforce, followed by incremental steps towards a universal scheme.
First, the Commonwealth should take over funding of services for people eligible for existing public dental schemes, fund them properly, and enable private-sector providers to deliver publicly-funded care. Then the scheme should be expanded – first to people on Centrelink payments, then all children. Within a decade, the Commonwealth should take the final step to a universal scheme.
Universal dental care is a big idea whose time has come. All Australians should be able to get the care they need, when they need it, without financial barriers.