Labour has launched a torpedo into the war of cost-of-living policies being fought by political parties this election, promising to extend basic free dental care to all New Zealanders under 30.
The policy, which is being estimated at $390 million over four years, would see 18 to 23-year-olds receive free annual check-ups, cleans, X-rays, basic fillings and extractions for free from July 2025. This would then expand to anyone under 30 a year later.
It's not quite as ambitious as the Greens' proposal to make basic dental care free for everyone, but Labour says it is just a "first step" as it builds capacity in the system to expand care.
The dental policy was announced at Labour's campaign launch on Saturday. Freedom NZ supporters crowded the front doors to the Aotea Centre venue, protesting "Labour pains", while hecklers appeared to strategically place themselves in the main theatre, standing up and yelling out during speeches by leader Chris Hipkins and former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
The policy is part of Labour's 10-point cost-of-living plan, following on from already announced initiatives like removing prescription fees and the promise of taking GST off fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables.
Hipkins acknowledged the "big bills" Kiwis face with dental when they turn 18.
"New Zealand has some of the highest recorded rates of unmet need for adult dental care – overwhelmingly because of cost," Hipkins said.
"In 2022 alone, 1.5 million Kiwis didn’t visit a dentist because it was just too expensive. Extending free basic dental care is a huge move and one which will ultimately benefit all New Zealanders."
By the end of the next term, if Labour is in power, Hipkins said nearly 40 percent of the population will have access to free dental.
Labour said successive Labour Governments would expand the commitment "based on workforce, healthcare capacity and fiscal settings".
"This policy is our first step. We know that it will take time to build the capacity needed and put the right settings in place to expand dental care," a Labour Party policy document said.
"Just as free healthcare and dental care for children was a progressive project built on and expanded as capacity was developed by successive Labour Governments, so too will we expand dental care to more adults."
Labour said over the longer term, it would "work to increase the age for free dental care consistently and ambitiously".
"This policy sets out our first three years. That will not be the end. As part of this work, we will also look to grow the number of publicly owned healthcare settings and publicly funded community-owned settings for dental check-ups and care, integrating dental care into the public health system, with a particular focus on areas underserved by private dental provision."
When the Greens announced its policy last month, Hipkins and Labour health spokesperson Dr Ayesha Verrall said one of the difficulties with providing universal dental care would be in growing the workforce to deliver it.
Dr Verrall on Saturday said this Labour policy was a step towards its "ultimate goal of universal dental care".
"It prioritises those most likely to put off dental care for financial reasons – young people."
She said the July 2025 starting date means there was time for the sector to prepare.
"Growing the dental workforce is hugely important to Labour. Our Government will work collaboratively with health agencies, regulatory and professional bodies to make sure we have the oral health therapists, dental hygienists and dentists we need."
She said Labour would also increase the number of places in Bachelor of Dental Surgery course by 50 percent.
The Labour Party's policy document admits "the rollout is ambitious but we can get there by working with oral health professionals".
"The next Labour Government will actively work with families to enrol their children with a dentist, and expand availability in different community settings like Māori and Pasifika health providers," Dr Verrall also announced.
She said Labour had already "made medicines free by removing the $5 co-payment on prescriptions, built a free community mental health service from the ground up and offered more free services in pharmacies and general practice".
“We’ve also got a strong track record on taking the tough decisions on prevention – like smokefree and fluoridation – and we’ve invested in better breast and cervical screening programmes."
Last year, the Government allowed people on low incomes or on a benefit to apply for up to $1000 a year to help with immediate or essential dental treatment, like fillings and the treatment of gum infection. Prior to that, people could only apply for one grant of up to $300 per year and only if the treatment was necessary due to an emergency situation.
In the December 2022 quarter, there were 15,144 dental treatment special needs grants handed out, totalling $7.4 million. In the March 2023 quarter, this had risen to 21,816 grants worth $15.4 million.
Newshub also reported last month that there have been nearly 10,000 instances of people requiring general anaesthetic for dental work over the past year.
The number of discharges where the primary diagnosis was diseases of the oral cavity, salivary glands and jaws has also not significantly improved over the past four years. In 2019, there were 13,849 discharges. This fell to 12,505 in 2020 but was at 13,701 last year.
The Green Party policy includes free annual check-ups and cleanings, free dental care (like fillings, sealants and teeth removal), mobile dental vans and portable clinics and community-based specialist care. This would be paid for through the Greens' proposed wealth tax.
The Greens also want to increase the number of training places for dental students and support Māori and Pasifika to pursue careers in dentistry.