Denticare, a new dental care programme of the Kevin Rudd government, has received mixed reactions, some lauding it as far-sighted, but others dismissing it as impractical.
The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission recommended the new dental scheme be funded through a 0.75 per cent increase in the Medicare levy, which is about $3.61 per person per week.
AdvertisementCommission chairwoman Christine Bennett said Australia needed a health system ''with teeth''.
''Denticare Australia would give every Australian universal access to preventive and restorative dental care and dentures, regardless of people's ability to pay,'' Dr Bennett said as she issued the interim report commissioned by the Government.
''People would choose a dental health plan with a private health insurer paid for by the levy or they could opt to rely on public dental services, for which increased funding would be provided.''
It was one of the big-ticket proposals put forward in the report, which recommended sweeping changes to the health system.
Greens health spokeswoman Senator Rachel Siewert supported the Denticare Australia proposal.
''With this report recommending a new, much stronger approach to dental health, it is clear that the Government's current plan is just tinkering around the edges,'' Senator Siewert said.
''Dental health in Australia has long needed radical change, as the system fails many Australians.''
Currently, more than one million people aged 12 to 17 years were eligible each year for a $150 voucher to help pay for an annual dental check-up through the Government's Medicare Teen Dental Plan.
But the Senate has blocked the Government's bid to scrap the dental scheme established under the Howard government that provides $4250 in treatment over two years for the chronically ill with poor oral health.
The Rudd Government wants to replace it with a Commonwealth Dental Health Program, paying $290million over three years to states and territories to treat patients on public dental waiting lists. About 650,000 people are in the queue, waiting an average of 27 months for treatment.
After the Senate vote, Siewert said, ''I think there's pretty compelling pressure now on the Government to seriously reform dental healthcare in Australia, and it has to go beyond their plans for the (previously proposed) public dental scheme.''
She said the Howard government scheme that Labor wanted to shut down had a similar aim to the NHHRC proposal.
''It would be absolutely ironic if the Government closes down a scheme that is, in part measure, actually in line with the commission's recommendation of universal access to dental services under Medicare,'' Senator Siewart added
Health Minister Nicola Roxon says the Government will consider the Commission's suggestions, but she says the dental system needs an immediate overhaul.
''We have to be able to invest in enhancing services that are urgently needed now and dental care is a prime example of that,'' Ms Roxon said.
''But we also need to be prepared to think about long-term changes that are needed to get our investments and infrastructure right for decades to come.''
Hans Zoellner from the Association for the Promotion of Oral Health says Denticare would not work in its current form.
''The most simple solution is to simply put dentistry in Medicare,'' Mr Zoellner said.
''Medicare is a system that works. It's been shown to work for dentistry for people with chronic diseases over this past year and it will work for the whole community.''
Mr Zoellner says the Denticare scheme will create a two-tier system for dental care.
''One where federal money is filtered through private health insurers to pay for private dental services, and if you can't provide private health insurance, Denticare, as currently proposed, would simply give the money to the private system so you can join the waiting list,'' he said.
The Federal Opposition has called for the Government to reject the plan, labelling it a massive tax hike.
NIB chief executive officer Mark Fitzgibbon says a single social insurance system to cover dental health care would be ''inefficient and lack competition''.
''I very much hope we're not talking about the nationalisation of dental services in this country which is just untenable, it'd be a disaster,'' he said.
''All Medicare is, is a big social insurance system and not a very efficient one at that. It's far better that the private sector be left to provide the funding mechanism for these types of schemes.''