BILLS;Dental Benefits Legislation Amendment Bill 2014;Second Reading – 30 Oct 2014

The Dental Benefits Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 will create a waiver provision for the Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme and make a number of amendments to the operation of the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. At present, the debt waivers are proceeding under section 34 of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. I am aware that the government thinks this is a slow and unwieldy process that requires unnecessary administration and processing, in both the Department of Human Services and the Department of Finance, which has resulted in the government’s decision to include a specific debt waiver provision in the Health Insurance Act. This bill will make amendments to the Dental Benefits Act and the Health Insurance Act to align compliance powers and to make these powers applicable to the CDBS. It also amends both acts so that the Professional Services Review scheme can be applied to dental services provided under the CDBS.

On this side, we take very, very seriously the issue of inappropriate professional behaviour and we support the application of compliance powers as well as the operation of the Professional Services Review scheme. The previous scheme was closed from 1 December 2012 and we know that the audit activity of the CDDS detected a high rate of noncompliance with the recording requirements of dentists. As a result of this, audit activity debts were raised against dentists found to be noncompliant. Indeed, I had a dentist in my local area come to me with a number of concerns, which I progressed up the chain of command, so to speak. We are aware on this side of how important that is. As I said, we take very seriously the issue of inappropriate professional behaviour and we support the application of compliance powers as well as the operation of the Professional Services Review scheme.

The bill will amend the Health Insurance Act to create a provision that will require the Chief Executive Medicare, CEM, to waive debts raised against dentists for services provided before 1 April 2010 that had satisfied all legal requirements but had breached section 10(2) of the Health Insurance (Dental Services) Determination 2007. As I said, it will also require the CEM to waive debts for services provided after 1 April 2010 if the dentist can provide evidence that there was an intent to comply with section 10(2) of the determination. Some dentists have already paid CDDS debts to the Commonwealth that fall under this waiver, and this bill provides for those amounts to be repaid to the dentists concerned.

The bill will also make amendments to the Dental Benefits Act 2008 and the Health Insurance Act to support the operation of the child dental benefits scheme, which is obviously a really important scheme. The child dental benefits scheme commenced on 1 January 2014 and provides two- to 17-year-olds who meet a means test with access to up to $1,000 in benefits over two calendar years for basic dental treatment. In my socioeconomic areas, we see a lot of bad dentistry in young people and these measures are needed to ensure the health of their teeth and that they are able to live a decent life. If you have bad teeth, it can lead to all sorts of other health issues and concerns. I have even known of people who have not been able to get jobs because their teeth have been in such bad condition that people did not want to employ them.

The Child Dental Benefits Schedule replaced the Medicare Teen Dental Plan and provides more comprehensive coverage through a greater range of services to a larger group of children. As I said, it is means tested, but, of course, those children really need that sort of help. The child dental benefits scheme formed part of Labor’s $4.1 billion dental reform package, which was announced on 29 August 2012. The Child Dental Benefits Schedule replaced the Medicare Teen Dental Plan from 1 January 2014. This program is a really important investment in prevention. We know that oral health in children is the best predictor of our oral health as adults, and this can be of grave concern.

In addition to dental for kids, the dental reform package provides extra funding for 1.4 million additional services for adults on low incomes, including pensioners and concession card holders and those with special needs, to have better access to dental health care in the public system. Just as bad oral health in children can lead to other illnesses and health issues, so it can with adults. It is important that we do what we can to help in that area. There will be more services and more dentists in areas of most need, which are obviously outside the capital cities. Coming from Tasmania, where there is a large rural population and regional population, it is great to hear that. This package was on top of the $515 million announced in the 2012-13 budget, which included a blitz on public dental waiting lists.

I was talking earlier about the oral health of our children, and we know that it has been declining since the mid-1990s. Almost 20,000 kids under the age of 10 are hospitalised each year due to avoidable dental issues. By the age of 15, six out of 10 kids have had tooth decay, which is probably not a good sign of what our nation is doing with regard to dental health and oral hygiene. Further, 45.1 per cent of 12-year-olds had decay in their permanent teeth, and, in 2007, 46 per cent—just under half—of children aged six attending school dental services had a history of decay in their baby teeth. The issue of oral hygiene and dental health is not one that should be taken at all lightly; it is one that we obviously should be supporting and putting money into. Dental providers carry out a range of services for all people, and those services are most important. As I have said, I think this is overlooked quite a lot of the time.

This bill amends the definition of a ‘dental provider’ to align with the definition under the national law dealing with the registration of health professionals. Part 6, ‘Provision of information’, allows for information obtained under the act to be disclosed to the minister and department administering the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986 if the disclosure is for the purpose of administering the Dental Benefits Act. That is because people may be eligible for dental benefits if they are receiving certain allowances paid by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The machinery amendments to the Dental Benefits Act include clarifying provisions related to the disclosure of protected information, allowing the delegation of ministerial powers to the secretary or SES employee of the Department of Health, amending the definition of dental provider and correcting a minor technical error in section 4. It will be interesting to see what sort of impact this has. A longitudinal survey might need to be done with regard to oral dental health and the impact that people having easier access to dentists will have on our society. I know other people wish to speak on this legislation, so I will conclude my remarks.