The federal member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, has recently announced that she will advocate for a $1000 dental voucher for pensioners as part of her 2019 federal election campaign.
This echoes calls from the Benevolent Society, which has been campaigning for affordable dental care for older Australians through the Fix Pension Poverty campaign.
Dr Kirsty Nowlan, executive director of strategy, engagement, research and advocacy at the Benevolent Society, said: “Including dental care in our universal public health system is the standard we should be heading towards. In the meantime, we need to deal with the dental cost crisis for older Australians by looking at this plan from Rebekha Sharkie. There’s a dental benefit schedule for children, and this plan provides similar levels of assistance for people on the age pension.”
Nowlan said Australians pay 57 per cent of the cost of dental care out of their own pockets, compared to 17.3 per cent for all health services.
“It makes no sense that we have Medicare for other health services, but have to rely on increasingly expensive private health insurance for dental cover. Only 16 per cent of age pension recipients who are renting – the biggest indicator of poverty among older Australians – have private health cover.”
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2013, 29 per cent of people aged 65 or older whose annual household income was below $30,000 reported avoiding or delaying dentist visits, compared with just 14 per cent of people whose household income was $60,000 to $90,000.
It also reports that 32 per cent of people aged 65 or older who had no insurance cover for dental services reported avoiding seeing a dentist. Publicly funded dental care is scarce, and when available often does not offer a full range of dental services, while the wait times are also a significant barrier to care.
“We did some research a couple years back about the inadequacy of the age pension and we also interviewed a whole range of Australians,” Nowlan said.
“And what that research told us, particularly talking to older Australians, was that if when you’re dependent on the age pension as your primary source of income, as long as you are well, in a couple, and you own your own house, it’s probably just enough. But if any of those factors goes wrong, it’s inadequate and you’re going to find yourself living in poverty.
“We spoke to people who are mashing their food because they can’t afford to go to the dentist and have the kind of services provided that they need to in order to be able to eat a full range of food,” she said.
The campaign advocates a number of other issues that the Benevolent Society believes will close the poverty gap for older Aussies. Better and more affordable internet is one such concern.
“[The internet] is necessary to maintain social connections, and we know how important social connections are for older people’s wellbeing,” Nowlan said.
“We think that part of that social licence to operate for our telecommunications corporations is that they should be able to provide cut-price – not uneconomic, still charging people – but cut-price internet for those people who are dependent on welfare payments as their primary source of income.”
Another big concern for Nowlan is rent affordability and the overarching problem of the age pension.
“We know that if you are fully dependent on the age pension and you are in private rental, then you are going to be among the most disadvantaged older people in the country, and at the moment rent assistance and the age pension is simply not enough to secure a reasonable rental property in most of our major cities,” she said.
Most importantly to close the poverty gap for older Australians is a pension scheme that is apolitical, Nowlan says.
“We need to take the pension out of politics just as we do the minimum wage.
“We need to get [the pension] set by a body that is doing so rationally, rather than as a political compromise by a politician.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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