End the decay: the cost of poor dental health and what should be done about it

16 Dec 2011

Dental health has been largely excluded from the Australian Government’s health scheme Medicare. The result of this is significant suffering by those who cannot afford the cost of private dental care. The problem is concentrated among low-income and marginalised groups who identify the financial cost as the primary reason for not seeking help with dental problems.

The neglect of oral services is not a consequence of the exorbitant cost of dental care to the nation. Dental care presently constitutes about 6% of national health spending and comprehensive reform could be effected with the addition of less than 2 percentage points to this.

Nor can failure to treat oral health, like other types of health problems, be attributed to public opposition to reform or the cost of change. A recent Newspoll survey of 1207 people, undertaken for The Weekend Australian newspaper of 5–7 August 2011, found that 75% were ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ in favour of a Medicare-type dental scheme that would add three-quarters of 1% to income tax. Support was across all income and age groups and from individuals of all political persuasions.

The present report has been commissioned by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, which has for some time been concerned that the costs of poor dental health are largely borne by the most disadvantaged in our community. In some cases, this means people are living with painful and possibly unsightly dental issues that can cause or exacerbate other illnesses and reduce the capacity to obtain and retain employment. Poor dental health and the inability to afford treatment undermine people’s ability to participate in the social and economic life of the nation.

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