29 Sep 2020

Labour health policy: Mental health for school children, mobile dental clinics

4:15 pm on 29 September 2020

Labour would make mental health support available to all primary and intermediate students, and increase dental health grants to $1000, if elected.

Health spokesperson Chris Hipkins announced the party's health policy in Auckland this morning, saying it had invested record amounts into DHBs, hospitals and mental health "after nine years of neglect under National".

Labour would:

  • Provide mental health support for all primary and intermediate students
  • Continued roll out of nurses in secondary schools
  • $50m a year extra funding for planned care
  • $50m a year extra funding for Pharmac
  • Double the number of cochlear implants
  • Dental health grants of up to $1000 for those on low incomes and 20 additional mobile dental clinics

The party has also already signalled it would implement reforms recommended by the Heather Simpson health and disability report, including establishing a Māori health authority and national public health agency, reducing the number of DHBs from 20 to between eight and 12, and abolishing DHB elections.

Hipkins says Labour would expand the workforce of social workers, counsellors, teachers, youth workers and psychologists who could help support and build resilience in schools.

"We know that providing support early to young people works and can help prevent mental health issues manifesting later in life," he says.

"The Mana Ake programme in the Canterbury region has made a huge difference to children and families adversely affected by the earthquakes and terror attack."

Speaking to media this morning, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said Mana Ake was a team-based approach that had proven effective in Christchurch after the earthquakes and terror attack there.

"It's had teams of youth workers, mental health professionals, even adding in the use of for instance sports as a tool for wellbeing. They work together across primary schools in the region to support children who might be experiencing mental health issues.

"It is going to take us five years to roll this out because of workforce but we've got a good model to build on."

On dental care, she said the party acknowledged that dental care was costly in New Zealand and there was more work to do on that, but rebuilding the health system needed to be prioritised.

"Yes, we know that there's more to do on dental but we had to start on those areas where there's critical need while we rebuild the rest of our system too.

Ardern said the party's approach to dental care was to start with children.

"For the very reason that your dental care as a child often determines your dental care as an adult ... that's why we're increasing the number of mobile dental clinics, and what I want to see is more children accessing dental care because it's free.

"The next step is making sure that for our very low income families they're able to access care too."

She said acknowledging the need for a Māori health agency was a key part of Labour's manifesto, but the details of how it would work exactly still need to be worked out.

She also highlighted the party's commitment to spend $20m on a Pasifika health strategy, including Pasifika workforce.

"When we've rolled out big programmes like our mental health initiatives we've ringfenced funding for Māori and Pasifika health organisations to make sure we're supporting their service to their community."

Hipkins says the funding boost for planned care would help people waiting for surgery and consultations, including hundreds of women who suffer from endometriosis.

"This funding will see thousands more procedures go ahead and help to reduce the pressure on surgery waiting lists."

Asked about the possibility of a sugar tax, he said Labour had promised not to implement any taxes other than those already announced, and sugar was a complex topic.

"If you look at the international evidence around sugar taxes they don't necessarily help," he said. Sugar is in an awful lot of the food that we eat including some food that's reasonably healthy still has some sugar content."

He said the party had been doing work around healthy physical exercise for young people, and having health food options and water only at schools.

Dental policy not bad - Collins

Labour's funding increase of $200m over four years for Pharmac - $50m a year - compares to a $55m per year increase promise from National.

The National Party has announced its own dental, health and mental health policies over the past couple of weeks.

National's leader Judith Collins said she did not think Labour's dental policy was a bad one, but the focus should be on children.

"I think many people would say that that's a good thing to do... I don't think it's a bad thing."

Her party promised to spend an extra $30 million on improving dental services for children, including a free toothbrush, toothpaste and information pack each year.

"We focused on young children, we focused on the fact that many of the people you're talking about never had proper dental health when they were young."

She said about a third of children who could access free dental care were not doing so.

"So we thought we'd put the effort into young people and build our understanding of dental health from there."

Labour, National policies 'compliment each other beautifully' - NZDA

New Zealand Dental Association president Katie Ayers said the organisation welcomed the increased emergency grants, but they were only the first step needed for funding dental care. The association also wanted to extend free dental care to beneficiaries aged 18-24, and innovative solutions to improve access for low-income adults.

The mobile clinics were also a bit of a mystery.

"I'm not quite sure how that policy was determined but in terms of access to care for teenagers that's quite a small part of the puzzle. We know that about 30 percent of teenagers aren't accessing dental care but I don't think we've nutted out the exact reasons why and what we can do to fix it," she said.

"We're short of oral health therapists particularly in some parts of the country; we don't understand the motivation of teenagers to attend or not attend the dentist - the teenagers that don't attend tend to be the teenagers that need it the most."

The association had no preference for either the Labour or National policy as both were desperately needed, she said.

"I think they compliment each other beautifully and I would love to see them both actioned."

NZDA also wanted better preventative measures like water flouridation and a sugary drink tax - though Labour and National have both ruled that out - as well as equal access to specialist dental care from the various DHBs.

"Dentistry has always sat in private practice and has lacked funding but, you know, increasingly we're seeing a much greater need for funded dental care and also specialised dental care," Dr Ayers said.

"There are a number of DHBs that really need to up their game in terms of providing specialist services within the hospital ... for people that are medically compromised, people that have severe infections, people that have severe trauma, it really depends where you live in new Zealand what sort of services you're going to be able to access from your DHB.

"We feel like we're starting to gain some traction now ... that people are understanding that oral health is a key component of general health, that the mouth is part of the body and that your oral fitness really influences your physical wellbeing."

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