HUNTER parents whose children are eligible for free dental treatment have been urged to book an appointment well before June 30, the date on which dentists fear the government funded-program will be discontinued.
Newcastle dentist Dr Mark Morrin is one of many across the state writing reminder letters to patients being treated under the government’s means-tested Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS), which offers $1000 of dental treatment over two years to children aged 2–17 years.
More than 1.5 million children across the country have received more than 10 million services under the program since its January 2014 inception, including examinations, x-rays, cleaning, fillings, fluoride and extractions.
“This program is of tremendous value and has been extremely well targeted,” said Dr Morrin, who has treated about 300 patients under the scheme.
“We have seen quite a number of children who would not have regularly seen a dentist without this scheme.
“Most come in with one or two bits of decay that need to be filled.
“Some are 8, 9 or 10 years old and have never been to a dentist before.”
Questions about the future of the $2.7 billion CDBS were raised recently after Minister for Health Sussan Ley said she was reviewing the program amid concerns it had been under-utilised.
A spokesperson for Ms Ley’s office said the government was “absolutely committed to improving the oral health of Australia’s children”.
“Right now we are focused on delivering dental reform, which includes looking at the targeting and focus of current programs to ensure both prevention and service delivery is available to those most in need,” the spokesperson said.
A recent report from Ms Ley’s department said in the first year of implementation, 898,797 – or 29.4 per cent – of the 3.1 million eligible children used the CDBS.
By June 30, 2015, 2.9 million children had been told they were eligible for the 2015 calendar year and 19.3 per cent had used the program.
The 2015 annual utilisation rate was projected to be higher than in 2014.
But crucially, the report also pointed out any failure of the program to meet its objectives reflected “an unrealistic original target, rather than significant underutilisation.”
It found the program had been “poorly promoted” and that the notice to families of their children’s eligibility “did not provide readily recognisable advice of an entitlement”.
It made a series of recommendations to ensure “the ongoing success and effectiveness” of the CDBS.
A total of 8611 children in the Hunter electorate have participated in the program since it began.
The number of eligible children in the Hunter as of February 29, 2016, was 20,402.
Dentists strongly agree the program could have been better promoted, but said the benefits for the continuously-growing number of patients it has reached should not be downplayed.
“If we are now treating 30 per cent of kids who would not have otherwise seen a dentist, is that such a bad thing?” Dr Morrin asked.
Dentists had expected the CDBS would continue to at least the end of 2017 and fear cutting it will force eligible patients back onto public dental clinic waiting lists.
Hunter New England Health has 105 children and young people currently awaiting assessment and treatment for non-emergency dental issues throughout the greater Newcastle region.
The Australian Dental Association has collected more than 13,300 signatures on a petition asking Ms Ley and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to retain the program.
ADA NSW president Dr Sabrina Manickam said the CDBS was one of the most effective programs for the 2-17 age group she had seen in her almost 25 years of practice.
“Research shows that it is far cheaper to spend money on preventive measures than corrective treatment, meaning the CDBS represents great value for money,” Dr Manickham said.
“We need more government funding of dental services, not less. The oral health of Australia’s children is on the line and this vital scheme can’t be allowed to go without a fight.”