NZ Election 2020: Labour rules out free dental care for adults, citing 'current economic environment'

Labour has ruled out making dental care free if it forms the next Government.

It's long been an expensive hole in New Zealand's otherwise wide-ranging subsidised healthcare system. The Greens have called for it to be free, and earlier this year Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was open to the idea.

"That's something I've heard consistently, and I understand why dental care is [so] expensive it's prohibitive," she said in February at Waitangi.

"I don't want to get ahead of [the] Government. There is more work to do and I hear that call."

But that was before COVID-19 arrived in New Zealand, and blew a $100 billion hole in the Government's books.

"We've got to be frank here," Labour health spokesperson - and current minister - Chris Hipkins told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

"In the current economic climate free dental care for everybody would come at a very, very, significant price tag, and I don't think in the current economic environment that's a debate we're in a position to have."

Shane Reti and Chris Hipkins on Newshub Nation.
Shane Reti and Chris Hipkins on Newshub Nation. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Asked if National would offer it, health spokesperson Shane Reti said to wait until the party released its health manifesto, promising a "pleasant surprise". 

Both Dr Reti and Hipkins weren't keen on a sugar tax. Dr Reti kept the door slightly open, saying he was waiting on the results of new research from the UK. 

Dental care is only free up until you're 18. 

A report put together by the Ministry of Health in 2018 found poor oral health "is largely preventable, yet it is also one of the more common chronic health problems experienced by New Zealanders of all ages". The report wasn't made public until August this year after Newshub went to the Ombudsman.

"A sizeable proportion of the adult population does not access oral health care due to cost," it read. "These adults are more likely to be Maori, Pacific, or from deprived areas."

As for cheaper GP visits - promised by Labour in 2017 - Hipkins said it was underway, but again blamed COVID-19.

"Financial priorities had to change."