In one of the few big-spending measures in Tuesday's austerity budget, half a billion dollars will be injected into dental care for the poor to reduce waiting lists. Another $170 million will be used to lay the groundwork for a national dental scheme, funding more graduate training places and paying dentists to relocate to remote areas
But to deliver its much-vaunted budget surplus, the Gillard government is gambling on clinching parliamentary support to shut down the existing Medicare-funded dental scheme - which funds private dental work if tooth problems are linked to a chronic illness. The program has blown out from $377 million to $1.9 billion in four years.
Labor will hold talks with the Greens over the next two months to design a new national dental scheme, but does not intend to fund a replacement until the 2013-14 budget. That could leave a gap of up to a year in which there may be no Medicare funding for dental services, shunting some people who now qualify for the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme onto the public dental waiting list.
It is unclear whether the Greens would help Labor axe the Medicare scheme if there is a lengthy wait for a replacement, given the minor party ultimately wants universal dental care. But Greens dental spokesman Richard di Natale hailed this week's budget dental boost - which was a condition of Greens support for Labor to form government in 2010.
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