LOW income adults can look forward to a $4 billion expansion in public dental services beginning in mid-2014, but will lose a more lavish scheme focused on the chronically ill from the end of this year.
The Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the new scheme was an ''unprecedented initiative'' that would combat the increasingly poor oral health among low and middle income families and children.
The six-year plan results from an agreement with the Greens enabling the axing of the present chronic disease dental scheme.
The arrangements will provide $2.7 billion for 3.4 million children from low and middle income families to get treatment from public or private dentists, capped at $1000 over two years, starting from January 2014.
''We will have a generation of kids for whom going to the dentist is as easy as going to the doctor,'' Ms Plibersek said.
Children would be able to get check-ups and all the basic services, including fillings and sealing of fissures and fluoride treatment, she said.
Low income adults, including pensioners, will be eligible for 1.4 million additional services under the scheme, but this element will not start until July 2014 and will not include access to private dentists.
Ms Plibersek said the present Medicare chronic disease dental scheme, introduced by Tony Abbott when he was health minister and now costing $960 million a year, would be shut down by the end of this year. She played down the impact of that withdrawal, saying the government had allocated in the last budget a separate $345 million to fund care for about 400,000 people on waiting lists over three years.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said the new provisions included ''a large saving'' by closing the Abbott scheme.
Ms Plibersek said the funding included $1.3 billion to states and territories to expand services for low income adults but dependent on the states and territories maintaining spending. Another $225 million was targeted for more dental facilities, dentists and therapists.
The policy, which Ms Plibersek announced with Greens health spokesman, Richard Di Natale, has won wide support from dental, consumer and public health groups. Senator Di Natale said enabling children to see private dentists would reduce demand on public clinics, opening the way for more adult patients.
He said the Greens had ensured that the scheme would be legislated to start in January 2014, in order to have it established before any possible change in the Senate took effect in July 2014.
The president of the Australian Dental Association, Shane Fryer, said the focus on children and those in need ''may also result in a long-term saving for government and the community by minimising long-term deterioration in dental health''.
Dr Fryer said the dentists also supported the closure of the chronic disease scheme, but noted the reduction in funding. He said the scheme had delivered valuable care but was too widely used by those who could afford treatment.
The Consumers Health Forum said that teeth had been left out of the health system for too long and the policy was ''a game changer''.