How does public dental care actually (not) work?

Article published 15 June 2022

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PUBLIC dental care is available to around 5 million Health Care Card and Pensioner Concession Card holders nationally.

That’s about one fifth of the population.

But if you’ve ever applied for public dental, you’d be thinking there’s no way 5 million people could figure out that system and actually get the treatment they need. And you would be right.

In 2020-21 only just over 1 million people received public dental care.

Why is this number so low compared with the number of those who are eligible?

Of all dentists in Australia, only one-in-twenty work in public clinics.

This tiny workforce means that when you apply, you’re overwhelmingly more likely to end up on a waiting list than to receive an appointment straight away.

These waiting lists can be unbearably long, with NSW wait times being around 465 days for most people.

Hearing this, it’s no wonder that people don’t bother applying until they are desperate for emergency care. Most scrape together the money to go to a private dentist.

There are also different rules in each state and territory.

Generally speaking, if you’re an adult with a Health Care Card or a Pensioner Concession Card you can access public dental care no matter what state or territory you live in.

NSW and Queensland include Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders in their schemes, with Queensland also extending to those with a Queensland Seniors Card.

The Northern Territory also offers public dental care to extremely remote residents and Victoria extends their program to Veteran Gold Card holders and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, refugees and asylum seekers.

How much can you expect to pay?

For basic services, you can expect free care in NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory. In other states there are co-payments from $30 a visit in Victoria to $64 a visit in South Australia.

More complicated therapies for things like root canals, orthodontics and dentures will have additional costs that are often very high or come with an even longer wait time.

Unless you’re having a dental emergency, with dental trauma, swelling or bleeding that won’t stop, you’ll probably end up on a wait list which prioritises by urgency.

This means when you call, you’ll be asked some questions about your situation and essentially be triaged over the phone.

If you only want a check-up or a minor service, or have downplayed your symptoms, you are likely to remain at or near the bottom of that list for a long time as others jump ahead.

The only way to ensure you receive treatment is to stress the seriousness of your symptoms and keep calling repeatedly. It’s almost as if the system wants you to exaggerate and cheat.

It is the only way, even though it is simply not fair or sustainable to expect people to go to these lengths to receive basic, necessary care.

With the Greens having the balance of power in the senate, and hoping to include dental in Medicare, maybe desperately needed reform is on the horizon.

If you’ve faced these issues or have your own experiences with public dental care, please contact us to share your story on 1800 451 488 or .

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