6 Aug 2023

Greens promise free dental for all, paid for by 'fair and simple' tax changes

11:25 am on 6 August 2023
Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittock

The Greens have promised to fix the "broken and cruel" dental health system by making it free for all.

To pay for it, the party - currently polling around 9 or 10 percent - would make "fair and simple changes to the tax system".

"The time is now to make dental care free for everyone and to pay for it with a fair tax system," Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said on Sunday.

"Right now, oral health is a luxury few can afford. Every year millions of people put off going to the dentist because it is too damn expensive. The average cost of going to the dentist is around $350, so it's hardly surprising that with food, rent, mortgage repayments, and power bills going up, so many people are choosing not to go."

At present, free dental care is only offered to people up to their 18th birthday. The Greens say only about 2 percent of public health spending goes on dental care, leaving Kiwis nearly $2.5 million out of pocket every day on services.

Going without has led to one in three adults with untreated tooth decay and half with signs of gum disease, the party said.

Davidson said people are living "in agony" and using pliers to pull their own teeth out because of the prohibitive cost.

"Under our plan, everyone in Aotearoa will be able to visit the dentist when they need to through a new community-based New Zealand Dental Service, which will also provide emergency and complex dental services through local hospitals or specialist sites."

A file photo of a chair in a dentist's surgery

At present, free dental care is only offered to people up to their 18th birthday. Photo: 123RF

In 2022, Finance Minister Grant Robertson ruled out expanding free dental care in one fell swoop, saying it would cost more than a billion dollars a year.

In that year's Budget, the grant available through Work and Income for people on low incomes or benefits was more than trebled, from $300 to $1000. There are also a "limited range" of services funded, for those with disabilities and certain medical conditions, or emergencies.

Robertson's comments came in the wake of a report commissioned by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists which found 40 percent of Kiwis could not afford dental care, and making it free would cost the country less in the long-run.

"Seventeen years ago, the former Prime Minister Helen Clark expanded dental care from our youngest children to everyone aged 18 and under," co-leader James Shaw said. "The time is now to finish the job.

"Free dental will be fully funded through fair and simple changes to the tax system that will unlock the resources we need. Every dollar will come from those most able to contribute.

"Our fully costed plan will give everyone the peace of mind that no matter what, they can visit the dentist when they need to."

The plan would include free annual check-ups; mobile dental vans and funding for community clinics, including on marae; specialist care for people needing oral surgery and "complex treatment"; Māori-run community and whānau oral health services; and "a plan to train the next generation of dentists", with increased caps on training placements (from 60 to 80) and support for encouraging more Māori and Pasifika into dentistry.

A poll earlier this year found three-quarters of voters back free dental care.

Earlier this year, then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it would be "enormously expensive".

The Greens estimated it would cost $1.41 billion in the first year, rising to $1.71b in the 2025 and 2026. Buying a few hundred more dental vans would cost $150 million.

"We anticipate that costs will decrease long-term as a greater focus on preventative care improves oral health outcomes for all New Zealanders," the party said.

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