12 August 2021

I'm absolutely delighted to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2021 and the amendment brought forward by the member for Ballarat, Catherine King:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House …

(2) urges the Government to do more to address:

(a) access to dental … including General Practice, in outer-metropolitan, rural and regional Australia; and

(b) out of pocket costs for all Australians accessing these services".

I'm going to come to general practice in rural and regional Australia in just a moment, but, before I do that, I want to talk about dental benefits. Many people appreciate the importance of dental care from birth. In fact, it is becoming increasingly known, as this bill legitimately points out, that from the very day you are born oral health is a keystone to longevity and health through life. We know now that heart disease and many chronic illnesses are linked to oral health. The sooner we start little children and babies on the journey to having great oral health and receiving exceptional dentistry, the sooner we will have a healthier population.

What does that mean for Australia broadly? It means that people will be well; they won't receive and need as much care, particularly in their latter years; and it will be less of an impost on the taxpayers of the future. That's a really important point to make. We want people to be well, and we want our health dollars to go as far as they possibly can.

This bill is an extension of the reforms that were brought around by the Gillard government in 2012: the dental health reform package for all Australian people, which saw thousands upon thousands of people be able to receive dentistry, particularly children, through the Child Dental Benefits Schedule, which looked after children between the ages of two and 17. This bill expands it to include children from birth to 17. But, as my colleague the member for Blair pointed out earlier in the chamber, this was happening before the Gillard government as well. The Hawke government brought in really critical reforms, and I remember this quite clearly, because, at my school, Kurri Kurri Public School, we had a dental health clinic. I can remember going to the dentist at school; in fact, I had two very big molar teeth pulled out in that dentist chair at school. It wasn't too traumatic, but, I can tell you now, I still remember it.

How is it that, in what was probably 1980, when I had my teeth pulled out at school, we had exceptional services and dentistry for children in at least some schools across Australia, thanks to the Hawke government? In some ways, I feel as though, in the intervening period between the Hawke and Gillard governments, we went backwards with dentistry, particularly for children and the government's support of that. This bill is well and truly long overdue.

I now want to talk about that critical shortage of health care in regional and rural areas and just take a moment to recognise Dr Chris Boyle from the Raymond Terrace Family Practice. He practises with Dr Sarah Bayley and Dr Damian Welbourne. Between them, they do an amazing job of keeping our community healthy. In recent times, they've been running a COVID respiratory clinic and also now a vaccination hub. They have gone above and beyond the call of their Hippocratic oath to deliver wellness to our community, and we will be, I suspect, for many generations, truly indebted to them for their service. They see patients all day, and then they stand up and vaccinate well into the night. They are really burning the candle at both ends for us. I give a deep and heartfelt thanks to them. Chris said to me, when he vaccinated me for the first time: 'Meryl, there is a critical problem in Australia. We are not training enough GPs. There is not enough incentive to become a GP, and we have a critical shortage of them. The areas of need have contracted, in terms of the government's modelling of this, and we need to do something about it.' Dr Boyle, I hear you, and I want our government to hear you as well.

My electorate is experiencing a critical shortage of doctors and is in desperate need for support recruiting doctors to the area. In October last year, I met with Michelle Hudson and Donna White, who are the hard working practice management team at Shoal Bay and Anna Bay Providence Medical practices. While I'm giving a shout-out to people, I just want to give a shout-out to the practice managers and the receptionists at every doctor's surgery across my electorate and indeed across Australia at the moment. You are truly the front line. You are on the phones receiving thousands of calls from frustrated, frightened people, who desperately want to be vaccinated and who are being told day in and day out, 'Talk to your doctor.' Let me tell you, in areas like mine—Kurri Kurri, Maitland, Raymond Terrace—it's incredibly hard to see a doctor. You don't just waltz in, make an appointment and see your doctor. These appointments are so hard to come by—to just chat to your doctor, let alone to get vaccinated. This is a clarion call to all those who are whimsically saying, 'Talk to your doctor.' It would be great to talk to your doctor, if you could get an appointment, so keep that in mind for all of us in rural and regional Australia. We don't just jump on the blower, make an appointment with the doctor and cruise on in. You can be told, 'I'm sorry, we've got nothing for three weeks.' That is if you can get in at all, if the books haven't closed.

After speaking to Donna and Michelle, I was really, really disturbed. They're facing an enormous problem, like many members of our community, and they're frankly at the end of their tether. Issues affecting every medical practice across the Tomaree Peninsula were at the top of their list of issues that needed to be addressed by this health minister. The single biggest issue they raised was the lack of GPs in areas like ours, like Nelson Bay, which is an incredible place to visit but, very sadly, can't get GPs.

We're faced with a crisis in my community, with this government failing to take action to support overworked GPs who can't attract additional staff to the local area because of the flaws in the government's current model. Where in Australia is it more pertinent to have GPs than in a tourism area with a large retirement population? Every year the bay is inundated with tourists. We love that; it makes our businesses thrive. I know it's not happening during COVID, but in normal situations and normal times we love people coming and enjoying our beautiful waterways, our magnificent beaches, climbing the Tomaree headland, having a great time in nature and in our wonderful community. But, if they can't access medical assistance when they need it, they have a real problem—and that is just one of the issues. Sometimes we have a fivefold increase in our population in Port Stephens and Nelson Bay—'the bay' as we affectionately call it—with people streaming in from all over Australia but particularly from Sydney. But, if someone has a kidney stone or someone has a heart attack or someone lacerates themselves on an oyster shell or someone has some sort of medical episode, it is just incredibly difficult. Staff do an amazing job at the small hospital we have, but it's completely underresourced for what we actually need in these times.

Port Stephens, Maitland and Kurri Kurri continue to experience critical shortages of doctors and are in desperate need of support in recruiting doctors to the area. I held a round table and Mark Coulton, the member for Parkes, who was the then minister for regional health, was great. He turned up, he listened, he was very concerned. He knew what it was like for areas like mine, but he couldn't solve the problem. The government just isn't solving the problem—and it is a massive problem. I just want to point out that we have this shortage of GPs, and we're being told in areas like Kurri Kurri that it's the same as metropolitan Sydney. It isn't. We cannot attract the doctors. There is a huge backlog of people with everything from chronic to acute medical conditions who need to be seen. And that's not touching on specialists; it's even worse if you've been referred to a specialist. You just can't get an appointment.

The Morrison government created this mess and they really need to fix the Modified Monash Model. It is not working in communities like mine. It truly is a mess, and they need to fix it. Some practices are turning away more than 100 patients a day. It's outrageous and it demonstrates the failings of the Modified Monash Model and the Distribution Priority Area model as well. At the moment, in this COVID crisis, there are terrible situations emerging all over my seat of Paterson. We need to step up and help our communities. People are waiting up to seven days to get a COVID pathology test back. They can't go to work. I've got big employers like Tomago Aluminium who are absolutely struggling, and I'm going to talk more about that later today.

We've got a critical issue here. There are two things happening. Firstly, someone who was found to be a close contact went to a pub on 1 August. They weren't contacted until the 10th, so there's clearly a delay in people being told that they are close contacts. Secondly, people go for their test, they do the right thing, and they're being told, 'You won't have your results for five to seven days.' This is grinding the essential services to a halt. People are trying to do the right thing, but the government have to step up and assist. They must assist our local businesses that are just—some of them aren't even hanging on by their fingernails. They're not. They've slipped. They know there is no coming back from this.

We are not being dramatic. The Hunter is the engine room of the New South Wales economy, much like Western Sydney, and it needs help now. The people in the Hunter, they're resilient, they're hard-working, they do the right thing; but, at the moment, they are frustrated, they are frightened for their lives and their livelihoods. We must step into the breach at this moment. I implore this government. We've got to have doctors. We need to have people tested more quickly and get their COVID test results back faster. We have got to get on top of this situation. It would be a heck of a lot easier if we had enough vaccines to do that. The government really needs to step up at this time.