Free den­tal care will win those votes

Rotorua Daily Post - - Nation -

The Labour Party an­nual con­fer­ence adopted a pol­icy last week­end that would guar­an­tee the party vic­tory at the next elec­tion, and prob­a­bly the one af­ter that too. The pol­icy?

Uni­ver­sal free den­tal care. But the par­lia­men­tary wing of the party seems reluc­tant, to say the least, to move on such a pol­icy. Health Min­is­ter David Clark isn’t an­swer­ing ques­tions on the sub­ject. The Fi­nance Min­is­ter says he has other pri­or­i­ties and wants to pay down debt.

Health is al­ready the big­gest com­po­nent of a govern­ment’s bud­get. This year there’s $18.2 bil­lion al­lo­cated. That’s 21 per cent of govern­ment spend­ing.

There is free den­tal care for all New Zealand cit­i­zens and res­i­dents un­til our 18th birthdays, but then we’re on our own. The cost of go­ing to the den­tist is the most com­mon rea­son given for peo­ple putting off a check-up, some­times for years and years.

That’s un­der­stand­able. The aver­age charge of see­ing a den­tist is over $400 an hour.

Any­body whose paid $100 or more for a five minute ex­am­i­na­tion and a cou­ple of X — rays will be sur­prised it’s not higher.

Den­tists them­selves, per­haps not get­ting much plea­sure out of the many aw­ful mouths they have to work on th­ese days, are now back­ing calls for ei­ther free den­tal care, or at least some sub­sidy.

There’s huge irony in that. Den­tal health wasn’t part of the First Labour govern­ment’s So­cial Se­cu­rity Act in 1938 be­cause of or­gan­ised op­po­si­tion from den­tists. The free care for those un­der 18 was the com­pro­mise. Eighty years on it does seem bizarre that ev­ery part of an adult New Zealan­der’s body will get govern­ment as­sis­tance to fix any health is­sues — ex­cept your teeth. (Al­though some re­ally se­ri­ous den­tal work can be done in a pub­lic hospi­tal.) The late Jim An­der­ton pushed hard for uni­ver­sal den­tal care. In 2011 his Pro­gres­sive Party reck­oned it would cost about a bil­lion dol­lars a year. It wouldn’t have gone up that much in the last seven years.

"Eighty years on it does seem bizarre that ev­ery part of an adult New Zealan­der’s body will get govern­ment as­sis­tance to fix any health is­sues — ex­cept your teeth."

But if the cur­rent govern­ment had the courage to ditch that ill­con­sid­ered and not very suc­cess­ful free ter­tiary fees scheme, which cur­rently costs around $400 mil­lion a year, then it would be well on the way to­wards pay­ing for den­tal care.

By the time that no-fees scheme kicks in fully to fund three years free at uni­ver­sity in 2024, the cost would be more than enough to pay for ev­ery­body to see a den­tist.

Con­sid­er­ing that the num­ber of those in ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion has in­creased by only 3 per cent this year de­spite the free fees, and that uni­ver­sal or sub­sidised den­tal care will have an im­pact on ev­ery­body, it’s pretty ob­vi­ous which is the bet­ter in­vest­ment.

Hav­ing good teeth as chil­dren and ado­les­cents should be a given in this coun­try. That many chil­dren have poor teeth is not the fault of govern­ment pol­icy. It’s lazy par­ent­ing, al­though hav­ing flu­o­ride in ev­ery mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sup­ply should be manda­tory too. (Where are you Tau­ranga City? It’s 26 years on from that non­bind­ing ref­er­en­dum where only 51 per cent voted against flu­o­ri­da­tion. A lot has changed here since then.)

Hav­ing healthy teeth through to ado­les­cence sets a good plat­form for your oral health later in life. But things hap­pen over time, and midlife den­tal care can be hugely ex­pen­sive.

There are two op­tions — pay for it or not have it done. (There is ac­tu­ally a third. Go to Thai­land or Viet­nam and pay a quar­ter of the price. But af­ter sales ser­vice can be a prob­lem.)

Even worse is that health in­sur­ance cover for den­tal work is so ex­pen­sive it’s not worth pay­ing the pre­mi­ums.

I had a work col­league once who was born in Eng­land and wisely kept his Bri­tish NHS num­ber when he came to live in New Zealand.

That meant when it came time for those wis­dom teeth to get pulled, he fig­ured it was cheaper to go and see his fam­ily and get the teeth pulled for free over there that it was to pay what­ever the rate was in this coun­try.

Set­ting a pub­lic den­tal care pol­icy won’t be easy. But af­ter 80 years of sub­sidised health care over the rest of our body, it’s time our mouths were looked af­ter too.

It’s sure to be a vote win­ner. You’d think politi­cians, of all peo­ple, would know that.

If Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robert­son and David Clark aren’t keen, how about you Si­mon Bridges?

There is free den­tal care for all New Zealand cit­i­zens and res­i­dents un­til our 18th birthdays, but then we’re on our own.

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