By Stephen Easton
Dental care is too expensive for many Australians, including some with private health insurance, while hundreds of thousands eligible for public dental services face a long wait, a new survey has found.
Preliminary results from a detailed survey of healthcare and health insurance use in Australia, conducted by the Ipsos Social Research Institute, showed that around 1.9 million people went without dental care in 2009 because they could not afford it.
The early results of the detailed survey of 2,700 Australians also revealed cost as a major reason for about 3.5 million Australians having avoided the dentist for more than four years.
Around 300,000 of those who are eligible for public dental care currently sit on waiting lists, according to the survey, slightly lower than previous estimates which put the number at around half a million.
Those aged 65 years and older were the least likely to have missed important dental work in the last year out of all age groups surveyed, according to Ipsos director, Ryan Williams.
Greens senator for Victoria, Dr Richard Di Natale, said the results were consistent with previous research on the issue and were a boost to his party’s campaigning for the establishment of ‘Denticare’, a universal dental insurance scheme (but not the one proposed by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission).
Making dental care a bigger priority for the federal government was a key condition of the agreement struck between the Greens and Labor after the last election, he said.
“It was one of the key campaign priorities for us going into the last two elections. Because of this agreement we’ve now got a National Dental Advisory Council established, and we hope there will be significant investment in [dental health] in the next budget.
“I have to say that for me, it’s my number one priority in the Senate. If I can achieve anything in my time here, it would have to be introducing the universal dental scheme.”
Senator Di Natale said the Greens believed such a scheme should be run in a similar way to Medicare, and could be funded through a 0.75 per cent increase to the Medicare Levy Surcharge.
As well as a public dental insurance scheme, Dr Di Natale also supports an expansion of existing public dental services, which he said were of very limited availability and severely under-resourced, particularly in terms of workforce and infrastructure.
Ryan Williams from Ipsos said the survey data showed many Australians, from a range of different age and income related demographics, were struggling with the cost of dental care for two major reasons.
Many people on lower incomes cannot afford private health insurance, but are also ineligible for public dental services, putting regular trips to the dentist beyond the budget. At the same time, a large number of middle income earners reported that having private health insurance didn’t help either, as the coverage was often inadequate.
“Our data indicates that dental affordability issues don’t just impact low income groups, but middle and higher income households too,” Mr Williams said. “As a rule people are missing out on some fairly important work – which if left unchecked, can cause bigger problems later in life.
“This is a national issue. We see a fair amount of variation across the states, however no system has it right just yet, and each faces different challenges.
“If you live in Queensland you may be more likely to be sitting on a public waiting list, while if you live in Tasmania there’s a chance you haven’t been to the dentist in decades. ”
Senator Di Natale described the idea of families skipping the dentist to save money as “a false economy”, because it costs the country more in the long run when patients present to GPs and emergency departments with serious and costly health problems, which could have been prevented by better dental hygiene.