15 Nov 2022

Single-step move to universal dental care cost-prohibitive - Grant Robertson

11:32 am on 15 November 2022
Grant Robertson

Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson says it would cost upwards of a billion dollars a year in additional funding to move directly to universal dental care in Aotearoa. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The government is under renewed pressure to invest heavily in dental care after a report found treatment was so expensive some people were resorting to pulling out their own teeth.

The Tooth be told report, commissioned by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, said free or subsidised access to dental care in Aotearoa would save millions of dollars in healthcare over time.

But Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Morning Report moving directly to universal dental care would require over a billion dollars a year in extra funding and any additional investment needed to be weighed against other priorities in the health sector.

He said the government had moved to expand coverage of dental care in this year's Budget, with increased support available from next month.

"We've actually trebled the low-income dental grants, said that they don't just have to be for emergencies, that they are available now for preventive dental care," he said.

"That's not just for people who are in receipt of benefits, it's also for low-income people."

He said he did not think the fact the grants had to be applied for through Work and Income would deter people from applying for them.

"For low-income people, I'm sure the opportunity to be able to get the support for [dental care] is something that they will take up."

The reason dental care was not wrapped into general healthcare funding was largely historical, Robertson said, and while there were "many, many things" he would like to do in the health system, fiscal considerations could not be discounted.

"I don't underestimate ... the cost associated with dental care," he said.

"It's obviously supposed to be free up to the age of 18 - even there we sometimes struggle to make sure that there's availability of dentists to do that work."

He said dental care had to sit alongside many other priorities in the health sector.

"Going straight to universal dental care right away would be well over a billion dollars a year of extra funding, we have to weigh that up against the other things that are needed in the health system."

Pay parity in professional sport 'on the horizon'

Robertson, who is also Sports Minister, said progress towards pay parity across all professional sports was obvious, but it would not happen overnight.

Speaking in the wake of the Black Ferns' Rugby World Cup victory on Saturday, he said while some organisations were further ahead in their pay parity journeys, he believed an attitude shift was underway.

"To me, this is just a part of us increasing the visibility of women's sport, valuing it properly and, while it might take a little bit of time across all sports, I do see it as something that will happen."

New Zealand Rugby, in particular, had made great strides in that regard, he said.

"In the last couple of years we've seen the Sevens team get paid the same as their male counterparts, we've seen the 15-a-side Black Ferns get full-time contracts - be paid, not at the level of the All Blacks, but about the level of a Super Rugby player - and so I can see the direction of travel there and I just think that it's an inevitability given who the Black Ferns are, how they're playing and the public interest in it."

He said the government put a significant amount of money into sport generally and had had a women and girls in sport strategy since 2018, which included "targeted initiatives around participation and around elite coaching".

The excuse heard in the past that there was no sponsorship or commercial interest in women's sport was disappearing, Robertson believed.

"Those sports where there is independent commercial revenue, where people are paid, I can see pay parity on the horizon, it may take a few years, but I think we'll get there soon."

  • NZ Rugby mulls World Cup bonus for Black Ferns
  • China, US meeting 'good for the stability of the world'

    Robertson said an in-person meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali was important for the global economy.

    He said New Zealand had long-standing diplomatic relations with China and he was certain they would also be "reignited in person" soon.

    "It's only a very recent development that President Xi is moving outside of China and meeting with others," Robertson said, adding it was "good for the stability of the world and for the stability of the global economy to have China and the US talking".

    "I don't underestimate the issues that exist between them, but from New Zealand's point of view as a small trading nation, we need stability in the world."

    Faster, cheaper RMA reforms

    The government is set to unveil its long-awaited reforms to New Zealand's resource management law today.

    It has worked on replacing the Resource Management Act (RMA) since taking office in 2017, with National also attempting to do so when it was last in power.

    The act sets out the rules for land use and development, but has long been criticised for being too complex and unworkable.

    Robertson said it would be a faster, cheaper version of the RMA, which governments, oppositions, and industries had lamented for over 30 years.

    "Modelling from the Ministry for the Environment shows that by moving to the new resource management system, costs to users will decrease by about 19 percent a year - or about $149 million a year."

    The details will be revealed at 1pm.

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