The federal government will pour $4 billion into a dental package to provide millions of children and millions of adults on low incomes or in rural areas access to government-subsidised dental care.
Health Minister Tanya Plibersek this morning announced that more than three million children would be eligible for the scheme, which will begin in 2014.
For adults on low incomes, $1.3 billion to fund an additional 1.4 million services will be available in the six-year package.
The changes have been made possible with the support of the Greens, who have insisted on big expansion as grounds for axing the current Medicare chronic disease dental scheme costing about $1 billion a year.
The funding comes on top of the $515 million announced in the 2012-13 budget.
''Labor believes we have a responsibility to ensure Australians who are least able to afford to go the dentist, and particularly children, should be given access to government-subsidised oral health care,'' Ms Plibersek said.
Greens health spokesman Richard Di Natale flanked Ms Plibersek when she made the announcement in Sydney.
Ms Plibersek said the ‘‘unprecedented’’ package would tackle increasingly poor dental health among low-income people.
Eligible children would be able to get basic dental treatment capped at $1000 a child over two years to address dental decay, which, she said, had been increasing since the 1990s in Australia.
The package includes $2.7 billion for the treatment of children.
“While Medicare and free hospital care have been a basic right for Australians for decades, millions of people in this country still go without adequate dental care,” Ms Plibersek said.
“Labor believes we have a responsibility to ensure Australians who are least able to afford to go the dentist, and particularly children, should be given access to government-subsidised oral health care.”
The government would also provide $1.3 billion to states and territories for expanded dental services for low-income adults but the funding would depend on them at least maintaining current levels of dental services.
There would also be $225 million for dental infrastructure and workforce expansion in outer metropolitan and regional and rural areas.
Ms Plibersek said the public dental scheme would now be able to focus on prevention measures.
‘‘Many more low-income Australians will be able to get not just crisis treatment, when their teeth are falling out or gums abscessing, but actually moving back to a period ... of prevention and early intervention,’’ she said.
‘‘The investment today will bear rewards in 10, 20, 30 years' time.’’
Senator Di Natale said for a wealthy country, Australians had poor oral health. ‘‘Poor oral health leads to a range of complications ... one in 10 visits to the GP are because people can’t afford to see a dentist,’’ he said.
Ms Plibersek confirmed the government would close the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, set up by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott when he was health minister under the Howard government.
‘‘It’s been one of the most widely misused schemes ever designed in our public health system,’’ she said. ‘‘I’m very pleased to see the back of it.’’
The scheme was initially estimated by the Howard government to cost $90 million a year, but massive over-servicing and rorting had led to it costing $80 million a month, Ms Plibersek said.
The Medicare teen dental scheme would also be closed and replaced by the broader scheme for children aged up to 18.
Ms Plibersek said the 2012/13 budget allocation of just more than $500 million would be spent first, before the children’s scheme started from January 1, 2014 and the adult scheme from July 2014.
Ms Plibersek said the changes would need new legislation but would be brought to parliament as a change of regulation, which had the backing of the Australian Greens.
Asked where the funding would come from, she said the government would find savings in the budget which would be outlined in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook later this year.
‘‘We have a very good record of finding savings in the budget,’’ she said. ‘‘We found $30 billion of savings in the last one.’’
The government remained committed to delivering a surplus budget in 2012/13, she said.
Ms Plibersek predicted Mr Abbott would say no to Labor’s dental reform ‘‘like he says no to everything’’.
She said there were capacity restraints in the current system and that was why the reforms would come into effect in 2014.
‘‘There’s some parts of the country where you can’t find a chair and there’s some parts of the country where you can find a chair but not a dentist,’’ she said, adding it would take time to improve access to services.
‘‘This is a bedrock scheme. It can be built up over time.’’