TANYA PLIBERSEK'S ''landmark'' $4 billion dental package will cost less a year than the present Medicare dental scheme cost this year. This may explain why Ms Plibersek yesterday stridently damned the existing scheme as a ''poorly designed'', rort-prone artifact of Tony Abbott's last year as health minister.
So far no dentist has been prosecuted over abuse of the Abbott scheme, although 65 have been found to have been ''non-compliant'' and one alleged fraud is being considered for prosecution.
But the arrangement has financed the private dental treatment of about 1.5 million patients with chronic disease. This has been credited with reducing waiting times for dentures and serious gum treatment at public dental clinics.
Labor's new plan comes after a five-year stand-off between Labor and the Coalition which largely centred on the failure of the Abbott model to target disadvantaged patients.
Over that time, the Coalition and the Greens have refused in the Senate to dump that scheme, while the government refused to introduce its then modest alternative, which promised to fund more check-ups in public clinics for disadvantaged patients.
During that hiatus, many of the estimated 450,000 to 600,000 low income people who live with rotting teeth because they can not afford the dentist have continued to wait for months and years to get into strained public dental clinics.
The gap in services is expected to widen once the present scheme is axed later this year, until the next scheme begins in earnest in July, 2014, for adults.
The last budget did allow for a separate $515 million boost to public dentistry but that is expected to take some years to make a difference.
Yesterday's announcement comes after an intensive two-year campaign by the Greens for a Medicare-style ''Denticare'' scheme. Ms Plibersek avoided that moniker yesterday but she did point out that while Medicare had given Australians free hospital care for decades, millions ''still go without adequate dental care''.
The expected 3.4 million children aged two to 17 who will be eligible because their parents are in the family tax benefit part A category will be able to get $1000 in treatment over two years. The expectation is that there will be no gap costs charged by dentists, although final details have still to be thrashed out with private dentists.
The big difference with Medicare, however, is that the dental program is limited both in payouts and patient eligibility.
Adults who cannot afford dentists will still have to depend on public clinics, which the government is promising to plough another $225 million into.