Robertson’s continued blocking of free dental care essentially contravenes his own party policy. At the 2018 annual conference, Labor agreed to introduce free universal dental care for all adults, extending that available to under-18s. This decision was taken when the party was only one year in power. The announcement was received with great enthusiasm.
Four years later, Labour’s dental policy seems to be deteriorating, almost rotten. Behind the scenes, officials worked on the policy and found ways to implement it. But politicians lack the will to prioritize spending.
Although Robertson cites a $1 billion price tag for universal dental care, there have been suggestions on ways to phase in the policy, starting with low-income adults or a younger population. For example, if the government wanted to start by extending free dental care to the age of 27e anniversary, the Department of Health estimated that it would only cost $148 million, and they came up with many other ways to provide various other groups with free dental care at a lower cost.
Increased dental funding would be popular
There is no doubt that the policy is extremely popular – with numerous surveys showing that the public wants the implementation of free dental care. A 2020 Colmar Brunton survey showed that 64% of the public support free dental care. The most recent poll, conducted by Newshub’s Reid Research in May, asked, “Do you think the government should subsidize dental care to make it cheaper for adults to go to the dentist?” 84% say yes.
At the time, Health Minister Andrew Little responded by saying, “This is an area we need to pay attention to at some point” and “there is a lot of room for improvement” in the government funding for adult dental care.
Yet Labour’s changes on this have been minimal so far – increasing the dental grants available through Work and Income. It is an improvement for those who can access it, but does not replace the formal reform promised by Labour.
Universal dental care is the order of the day
The policy of universal, free dental care is back on the agenda after the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (Toi Mata Hauora) – the union representing dentists – released a report this week recommending that the dental care policy free and universal dental care is implemented as soon as possible by the Government. The union complained that although Labor pledged to act in 2018, there has been “radio silence since”.
The union’s report, ‘Tooth be said’, showed unmet dental treatment had gotten so bad that out of 11 comparable countries, New Zealand was now faring the worst. The report showed that unnecessary tooth decay leads to a quarter of a million New Zealanders having their teeth pulled each year. Indeed, 40% of New Zealanders cannot afford to go to the dentist. And the situation is getting worse – there has been a 31% increase in the number of people requiring hospital medical interventions.
Some dentists have talked about it recently. For example, last week Timaru’s dentist, Fraser Dunbar, went on TV3’s The Project to describe the harrowing job he has of pulling people’s teeth out in hospital because people don’t have ways to go to the dentist.
He says there has been a surge in the number of people in their twenties who need all of their teeth removed. Dunbar said that “it’s not uncommon for him to pull 100 teeth in the morning at the local hospital” and that includes “three or four patients getting full clearance.”
The publication of the report was also supported by the Auckland City Mission (Te Tāpui Atawhai) because the issue is so clearly linked to inequality and poverty. Because private dental care has become so expensive, the problem directly fuels global inequality.
According to the report, 42% of adults cannot afford to visit the dentist. And of course, for some ethnic minorities it is much worse – 53.7% of Maori adults and 51.5% of Pasifika do not have access to dental care under the current system.
The dental problem is therefore its own “crisis”, and a key part of the global inequality crisis that the government is failing to tackle. And this ‘crisis’ categorization was confirmed earlier this year when the international dental news website, Dental Tribune International, reported: ‘New Zealand’s oral health crisis is raging’. And it’s not just linked to a lack of government funding, but also to a declining dental workforce – New Zealand now has one of the lowest numbers of dentists and dental specialists per capita in the OECD.
Cheaper to provide comprehensive universal dental care
The union of salaried medical specialists argues that the government is wrong in taking a short-term approach of rejecting free and universal dental services on the basis of price. The union says the opposite is happening – that the price of neglecting this area of health care actually results in higher costs to taxpayers and society.
The union argues that any major expenditure on dental health will result in significant savings in the long run. Union leader Sarah Dalton says that by spending on dental care, “there’s a whole bunch of much more serious, much more expensive illnesses that would go away.” Alternatively, chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease end up costing a lot more to treat down the road.
In fact, the New Zealand Dental Association did a cost-benefit analysis, using Treasury tools, and found that the government would recoup an additional $1.60 on every dollar spent on extended dental care.
The problem, however, for Grant Robertson and Labor is that such public victories would be further away than the next election, or even the one after that. So politicians clearly did their own electoral cost-benefit analysis and decided not to invest, even though it would be a sensible way to reduce misery and inequality.
In this sense, the overlooked case of universal free dental care is a clear case study illustrating the decadence of the Labor Party as a force for progressive change. Unfortunately, the rot in dental health and politics looks set to continue.