2 Sep 2023

Election 2023: Labour kicks off campaign with free dental promise

4:03 pm on 2 September 2023
Chris Hipkins at Labour's campaign launch

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Labour has officially kicked off its election campaign with a promise to extend free dental care to all those under 30.

Watch today's media conference with Labour leader Chris Hipkins here:

Labour is pitching the dental policy as beginning "the journey" towards universal free dental, while making provision for training more dentists over coming years.

Free dental care would cover annual check-ups, teeth cleaning, basic fillings and extractions; the government would prioritise 18 to 23 year olds from July 2025, and then to those under 30 the following year. At the moment free dental is available to those under 18.

Labour has recently rejected calls for universal free dental as being far too expensive. This policy is costed at $390 million over four years, reflecting the delay in implementing it fully until 2026, and limiting it to those under 30.

Once in place it would cover about 800,000 New Zealanders.

The cap on places for dental training would be increased by 50 percent.

Watch Labour leader Chris Hipkins' campaign-opening speech here:

Leader Chris Hipkins said in its first 100 days a Labour government would also launch a campaign to recruit more dental workers from overseas.

"New Zealand has some of the highest recorded rates of unmet need for adult dental care - overwhelmingly because of cost.

"In 2022 alone, 1.5 million Kiwis didn't visit a dentist because it was just too expensive," said Hipkins.

"Children and young people currently have access to free basic dental services but as soon as they turn 18, they face big bills and often drop out of the system."

Hipkins said the age targets were because tooth decay tended to start in the 20s, and acting on them will help prevent health issues down the line.

By the end of next term, if Labour is re-elected, "nearly 40 percent of all Kiwis will have access to free dental care," he said.

Hipkins said "successive Labour governments will expand the commitment based on workforce, healthcare capacity and fiscal settings".

Health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall said poor oral health had "a lasting impact on both mental and physical health and can lead to avoidable hospitalisations".

"The policy we're announcing today is a substantial step towards Labour's ultimate goal of universal dental care. It prioritises those most likely to put off dental care for financial reasons - young people.

"Labour knows such a fundamental change in our public health settings needs to be carefully designed," she said.

"Choosing a start date of July 1 2025 means we have time to enable the sector to prepare, which is why we're rolling out the policy in stages."

Labour would "work collaboratively with health agencies, regulatory and professional bodies to make sure we have the oral health therapists, dental hygienists and dentists" the country needs, and increase the number of places in Bachelor of Dental Surgery course by 50 per cent.

Hipkins said he had now announced eight parts of the Labour Party's 10-point plan to tackle the cost of living crisis.

Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins (centre) greeting supporters at the party's campaign launch on 2 September, 2023.

Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs