Push for Medicare-style dental scheme for older Australians

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Australian dentists seeking a national seniors’ dental benefits scheme could get the backing of a royal commission.

Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality has recommended a revamp of dental care funding, backing a submission made by the Australian Dental Association (ADA). The association is urging the royal commission to include the seniors’ scheme in its final recommendations to government when it reports in February.

It is seeking Medicare-funded oral health assessments by registered dentists for those aged over 75. The aim is to reduce the “unmet oral healthcare needs of older Australians”.

The ADA also advocates that every person entering a residential aged care facility should have an “oral health assessment by a registered dental practitioner to inform their ongoing oral hygiene measures”.

“Whilst Medicare looks after the general health of our older adults – the mouth gets left behind.”

ADA president Dr Carmelo Bonanno welcomed counsel assisting the royal commission’s support for a dental overhaul for older Australians, calling the model the “most realistic option for funding dentistry for older Australians”.

“Creating such a scheme is critical to building better oral health among older Australians before and after they enter residential care …” Dr Bonanno said.

“Without the funding mechanism to ensure that older Australians can access screening and treatment through both public and private dental practitioners, the oral health of our most vulnerable population will continue to be neglected.

“It’s particularly important for those older Australians receiving home care or going into aged care facilities that their oral health issues are assessed and treated and that they receive ongoing care to ensure they can continue to eat, speak, socialise and be free from pain.”

Australia’s most recent dental report revealed an “oral health crisis” of tooth decay and gum disease among Australian adults, with one in three of us enduring untreated tooth decay, and one in four suffering periodontal (gum) disease. Both are treatable conditions.

In July, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that more than 50 per cent of Australians without dental healthcare insurance were postponing or avoiding treatment because of cost. Even many of those with insurance found out-of-pocket fees or gap costs a disincentive for treatment.

It quoted a report by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) on oral health and dental care.

AIHW spokesperson Dr Adrian Webster said poor oral health compromised a person’s quality of life.

“For many Australians, cost may be a barrier to ensuring they receive the care they need, when they need it,” he said.

Dr Webster said 52 per cent of people without insurance and 26 per cent of people with insurance said they avoided the dentist because of the cost.

The report revealed that “many people who had avoided or delayed visiting a dentist in 2017-2018 because of cost had only visited in the past when they needed urgent treatment. People on low incomes were also much more likely to skip visits.”

An SBS Insight program on dental health concluded that in 2018 two million Australians missed out on dental care because of the cost.

“Although oral health affects overall health, the mouth is treated differently to the rest of the body, with no universal health scheme like Medicare covering it.”

Why dental health is crucial (AIHW)
The most common oral diseases affect the teeth (tooth decay, called ‘caries’) and gums (periodontal disease). Oral disease can destroy the tissues in the mouth, leading to lasting physical and psychological disability. Tooth loss can reduce the functionality of the mouth, making chewing and swallowing more challenging, which in turn can compromise nutrition. Poor nutrition can impair general health and exacerbate existing health conditions. Poor oral health is also associated with several chronic diseases, including stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Poor oral health can also affect a person’s wellbeing. Dental disease can impair a person’s appearance and speech, eroding their self-esteem, which in turn can lead to restricted participation at school, the workplace, home, and other social settings.

Adult Oral Health Tracker report key findings (ADA)

  • the number of adults with untreated and potentially painful tooth decay has increased from 25.5 per cent to 32.1 per cent
  • adults with periodontal pockets larger than 4mm, which can lead to tooth loss, rose from 19.8 per cent to 28.8 per cent
  • adults reporting toothache went up from 16.2 per cent in 2018 to 20.2 per cent in 2020
  • nearly half (48.8 per cent) of adults surveyed had visited a dentist for a check-up in the past 12 months, a drop of 6.7 per cent since 2018
  • only 53 per cent of Australian adults are brushing their teeth twice a day.

Have you skipped dental check-ups because of cost? Have you experienced problems as a result? Would you welcome a Medicare-style scheme? 

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Written by Will Brodie


Total Comments: 25
  1. 4

    Yes of course there should be a dental scheme like Medicare, not just for seniors, for everyone. It’s a health care problem isn’t it?

    • 2

      I agree, why only over 75 and why only Age Care? Wasn’t dental care for pensioners removed by the Labor government?

    • 0

      No it was actually removed by the Liberals about 8 Years ago as I got my last lot of Dentures in 2011 and the only way I got the New ones were because the old were causing great big Ulcers and I could not wear them as i have aged and so has the gums shrunk and when I tried to eat with them they were rubbing and causing these horrible Ulcers !
      So I went to see a Dentist at the Community health Clinic to see if they could reline ! But they don’t do it anymore and they dental tech was there one day a week and he said I needed new Dentures !
      But they are not as good or as strong as the ones I had as I only had them three months and I dropped and the y broke in half and only two weeks after being mended I was cleaning and they just broke again (Lower Denture !) and it was the Wednesday before Xmas and I had no altermatic than to go to a Dental Tech and that cost so much I had to borrow and now I have to find the money to pay it back ! Being only on the Aged Pension with no savings or Super behind me !
      The method we had before was that you seen the Dentist and if the situation was bad they gave you a voucher to go to a Dental Tech or Dentist of your own choosing and the Voucher covered all !
      But these days you have nothing and no wonder so many older seniors etc are not going to see a Dentist !

  2. 4

    When older people can’t eat properly they develop other health issues. Governments would find it cheaper to provide us all with healthy mouths and save the costs of medical bills which should never have happened. I dental care should be part of Meiicare, for whole of life.

    • 2

      You should not treat these columns as a political soapbox. Incidentally, it was that woman ALP PM who scrapped the $4,000 that we used to get for dental treatment

  3. 1

    No chance of this happening with this ‘do nothing’ Government

    • 2

      I wish I could feel more positive about this. I have cover and suspect that my visits to the dentist cost more because of it.
      My friends in rental accommodation with only the pension say they have long waits to see a dentist, unless it’s an emergency.
      Trouble is any new scheme would cost billions which govt doesn’t have right now.

  4. 1

    waiting 2 to 5 years for a check up is the public dental system by which time teeth are bad /rotten more funding more dentist not just for seniors but for all

  5. 1

    I am going through public waiting list I have had terrible trouble with gum disease had to fight to get infected teeth removed and have been waiting over 12 months for front top and bottom teeth to chew with I’m 67

  6. 1

    Bit late for me. I’ve just spent nearly $6,500 having major dental work, now with a pair of dentures I loath. Fit dreadfully, been back numerous times, feels so awful I often gag. Plus the glue paste that holds them in makes me vomit. Only consolation is that I have lost some well needed extra kilos!
    There is not a hope in hell of any government bringing this in. Benefit or help for seniors? – no way! We are at the end of life, so not interested.

    • 0

      Commiserations. Three years ago I was being treated at a University dental lab by 4 year dental students, this was the cheapest option. The dentures back then would’ve cost me $600 + However, I also experienced violent gagging when they were taking indents of my teeth, it was the way they packed the paste to take the impression of my teth and the smell of it gave me a bad reactiom, so I had to give up buying the dentures. At 73, with more teeth crumbling and breaking away I am not looking forward to the way I will need to eat in the future with all food being meshed up into a soup. I brushed my teeth all my life but stopped dentist visits when I retired at 65 due to the horrendous dentist fees. I was horrified and angry when one dentist insisted on having my teeth cleaned for $450 before he would even contemplate to fix my broken tooth at an additional cost of $250. Imagine a motor mechnaic telling a dentist that the mechanic needs to wash and clean the dentist’s car first for $450 before the mechanic starts repair work on the dentist’s car. One wonders if the dentist would appreciate such a cost to his hip-pocket plus the cost of servicing the dentist’s car. The cost of dental work is hopeless out there, patients are getting screwed left right and centre.

  7. 1

    It doesn’t surprise me that dentists are calling for a scheme similar to Medicare, generally dentists are the biggest over chargers in the medical field, to give an example of how they operate, we have a new dental practise opened up in our suburb, they advertised a gap free dental check up if you are a member of a health fund, if you are not a member of a health fund the cost is $120 , so off I went and got my gap free check up, I asked the dentist how much of my dental allowance would be used, the response with a wry grin was $180. I might add that this is a lot cheaper than my regular dentist charges, his charge is around the $330 mark. If this system was to have a chance of ever being a reality there would need to be a set price for dental work, I can’t see any dentists signing up to reduce their earnings!

  8. 0

    Had cancer 4 decades ago and chemo can cause dental problems. Now have a mouth full of implants and can’t afford the teeth. Dental ‘profession’ is a joke. Most recent quote (getting a written quote is like pulling teeth! And they do not stand by them) $17500. Increased from $8800 when I questioned large difference with another dentist’s quote of $16500. Trying to compare apples with apples, which of course I cannot eat.
    I have already spent around $30,000 and can’t do it anymore.
    Food Snorter.

  9. 1

    I broke 1 tooth and split another with the one next to it needing root canal treatment. The first two were not fixable so I opted for 3 teeth out. That cost me nearly $800 for 20 minutes work. I know there are staff to pay and all the other expenses but that much money for that much time. Medicare dental would be welcome after that. I do have private dental cover and only got a couple hundred back. Medicare is a requirement to us pensioners not an option. I guess the dentist got my stimulus payment.

    • 0

      Completely agree, the only problem I see is that dentists would hike their fees up even higher than they are now, the result the scheme would fall apart through lack of funding and even longer waiting time, similar to the public hospital system, I need cataract surgery and have been told the waiting time in the public hospital is between 18 months and ?, my private health cover is limited cover, which means I can have the surgery in a public hospital by my choice of doctor but I still have to go on the waiting list, who would have guessed?

  10. 0

    I too have put off having any dental work done even though I need it because of the cost. I have had partial dentures made but now cant wear them because I have lost a couple more teeth since they were made. I would really appreciate a dental benefits scheme.



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