The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, said many older Australians are deprived of the simple pleasures in life because they can’t afford to go to the dentist, and has pledged that if Labor is elected to government, Medicare will cover seniors’ dental care up to $1,000 every two years.
Labor’s plan will give 3 million older Australian on the aged pension or with a commonwealth seniors’ health card, $1,000 worth of free dental care every two years.
The $1,000 can be accessed through Medicare, and will cover a wide range of dental services, including check ups, x-rays, periodontal treatment, and dentures.
Poor dental health undermines “quality of life, self confidence, dignity”
Mr Shorten said, “One in two older Australians has gum disease. The experts tell us that this, and decay and missing or broken teach carry consequences for your general health too.
“And all of us know, these things undermine your quality of life, your self confidence, your basic dignity. And for pensioners and seniors, that’s true for your denture work too.
“If you cannot get your teeth fixed, you are deprived of the simple joys, it stops you going out for a nice meal, it can make you self conscious even among family and friends.
“It is a real problem for a lot of our fellow Australians,” Mr Shorten said.
“And yet, our current government, the Liberals and Nationals, have cut $283 million from dental health per year. This is the equivalent of cutting services for 186,000 Australian patients. As a result the waiting list of public facilities have blown out.”
More Australians putting off going to the dentist
Mr Shorten said, “More and more of our fellow Asutralians are putting off going to the dentist altogether.”
Ian Yates, chief executive, Council of the Ageing, said the organisation has been lobbying for some time for a dental health plan, as older Australians struggle to meet the rising costs of living, including healthcare.
Mr Yates called on the Coalition to match or better the Labor plan, noting that the Greens have already announced a plan for universal dental care in Australia.
Plan will improve lives: COTA
COTA’s ‘State of the (Older) Nation Report’, released in 2018, found dental services are the most difficult services for older Australians to access, given many don’t have private health insurance, largely because they can’t afford it.
“Good oral health is particularly critical for older people who are particularly susceptible to chronic diseases such as dental decay, gum disease and oral cancer,” Mr Yates said.
“More than 50 per cent of Australians older than 65 years suffer from gum disease or periodontitis.
“We all know how painful a toothache can be, and for older people who often can’t afford proper care or find it difficult to access, poor oral health has much broader impacts on their physical and mental well being.
“Poor oral health can cause embarrassment and social isolation for many older Australians,” Mr Yates said.
“Poor dental health also increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and chronic malnutrition in older people,” he said.
“This is potentially a life changing announcement for many older Australians,” Mr Yates said.
More funds still needed
Paul Versteege, Policy Manager, Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association, also welcomed the announcement but said more money is needed.
“While Labor’s oral and dental health commitment is designed to increase the capacity of existing public oral and dental health programs, there is no guarantee it will. Oral and dental health programs are significantly underfunded and a more obvious use of the $2.4 billion pledged would be to better resource these programs in their entirety,” Mr Versteege said.
Mr Versteege said the approximately 185,000 Newstart recipients who are over the age of 55 are mostly long-term unemployed, and they also require help covering the costs of dental care.
“They need oral and dental care just as badly as those over the age of 65,” he said.
The dental health plan was part of a $7 billion package of measures announced by Labor that also included childcare and higher wages for educators.