Health budget focuses on dental and aged care

The states need to increase the number of public dental patients they treat or lose the reward payments offered by the federal government under its new $500 million dental package. A total of over $800 million of new money has come into the focal points of the health budget - dental and aged care.

Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said she wants to ensure the states did not cut back on their dental spending when the commonwealth puts up $345.9m to treat the 400,000 people now on the public dental waiting lists. Ms Plibersek said the states would have to provide information on their dental spending, treatment rates and waiting lists under the new national partnership agreement. The government was considering tying up some of the new funding in reward payments that would go only to states that lifted their dental care effort.

To address the shortage of dental workers in the bush, the package will pay the wages of 100 new dental graduates who agree to work in an area of need. The government will provide funding for new dental chairs to be provided in under-serviced areas. The Royal Flying Doctors Services will get funding to provide dental services in the Pilbara and outback Queensland. More than $77m will go to a program to encourage up to 300 dentists to move to rural or remote areas where the shortage of dentists causes oral health problems. More than $10.5m will be spent on a new national oral health promotion program to combat dental disease.

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek says that some items are being capped “to discourage excessive fees and to prevent people from misusing Medicare to pay for cosmetic surgery”. Items on the hit list include vulvoplasty or labioplasty, minor plastic surgery, varicose vein procedures, reversal of male sterilisation, eye injections, nipple reconstruction and nose work.

It was also announced the private health insurance rebate would no longer be paid for natural therapies, unless the chief medical officer decide they were “clinically effective”. The Consumers Health Forum praised the budget for targeting spending cuts. “We can't expect wrinkle reduction, eye lifts, nose and ear jobs to be subsidised by taxpayers,” forum chief executive Carol Bennett said in a statement. “We would much prefer the money was directed to ... Australians on public dental waiting lists.”

The aged care package announced in April is being billed as a $3.7 billion initiative but it only contains $577 million in new funding over five years. The rest of the money is being “redirected” from existing measures.

Nursing home operator Catholic Health Australia cited a lack of action to address the shortage of doctors and nurses revealed in a recent workforce report. “By 2025 Australia will have 110,000 fewer nurses than needed,” CHA chief executive Martin Laverty told AAP in a statement.

The budget also includes, as expected, $49.7 million to expand the national bowel cancer screening program. Tests are currently provided free to people when they turn 50, 55 and 65 but will now be offered to people turning 60 from 2013 and 70 from 2015 “with biennial screening phased in from 2017/18”, Ms Plibersek said.

In a move that will be welcomed by consumers, there's $200 million in new funding for electronic health records over two years including $4.6 million for additional privacy measures. Following on-going concerns that patients' details could be hacked, the Australian information commissioner will be given a “compliance and oversight” role. The e-health system is scheduled to go live on July 1.

Ms Plibersek on Tuesday was also spoke of the benefits of $475 million for regional infrastructure projects coming out of the existing health and hospitals fund. She also insisted that restricting the number of duty free cigarettes that can be brought into the country from 250 to just 50 per person from September would help reduce tobacco consumption. That was a sentiment shared by the Cancer Council's Ian Olver who said in a statement the move “consolidates Australia's standing as a world leader in reducing the harms of smoking”.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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