Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: Helping migrants access dental care

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Oral health is about much more than just having a pretty smile. The health of your mouth often reflects and can have an impact on the state of the rest of your body. Dental care is expensive in Australia, but there are ways to bring down the costs.

In Australia, some people can access public dental care, but the vast majority of the population needs to visit a private practice. They pay from their own pocket, sometimes helped by their private health insurance.

Dr Deborah Cole, CEO of Dental Health Services Victoria, a public oral health agency, explains that Medicare doesn't cover basic dental care like cleaning, check-ups or fillings.

"Virtually nothing is covered by Medicare. There are very, very few things. Medicare might cover things if you're admitted in the hospital for some sort of pathology, that would be covered. But for predominantly most basic dental care wouldn't be covered by Medicare. "

Medicare will only cover some dental services if they are necessary to protect your general health.

When it comes to paying for dental services, fees vary a lot depending on the dentist and where you live. According to the Australian Dental Association, the most expensive place for a check-up is the Northern Territory, and the least expensive is Tasmania.

A normal oral exam with a scale, clean and a fluoride treatment should cost around two hundred dollars.

When choosing the right dentist for you, Tom Godfrey, spokesperson for consumer advocacy group Choice, recommends shopping around and ask for prices before booking an appointment.

"So if you don't have insurance, the costs can vary widely from dentist to dentist. It's important that if you are on a budget, to ask your dentist to explain to you the costs before they commit to the procedure and that way it will be easier for you to budget."

Taking an appointment at a dentistry school could save patients money as their fees are generally lower than private practices.

Tom Godfrey says good health insurance can reduce the bill, but it will rarely cover the whole cost.

"You need to remember that on average, private health insurance customers claim back only around half of the dental fees. So even though you take out what we see as a form of budgeting tool within the extras policy for dental cover, you will still have out of pocket expenses."

However, Tom Godfrey insists that getting extras cover with your private health insurance is only worth it if you plan to use it on several things like optical, physiotherapy, podiatry. He says those who are only getting extra insurance coverage for their dental needs are better off just paying the bill.

Although dental care can be expensive for adults, it's more affordable for children. Almost all Australian children with Medicare can benefit from the Australian Government's Child Dental Benefits Schedule.

"All children, until they're seventeen, before they turn eighteen, are actually eligible for care. If they fit within a certain family tax benefit, but most people who would come in would come in would fit in that category. "

Parents receive a thousand dollars per child to be used over two years for dental care.

Deborah Cole says public dental care is only available to a small percentage of the population.

"Every state has slightly different eligibility criteria, but predominantly, if you have a healthcare card or a pension card, you're eligible. In Victoria, if you're a refugee or an asylum seeker, we will provide you with care as well. In other states it's a little bit different, but most of them predominantly would provide emergency care."

Ms Cole says Dental Health Services Victoria works hand-in-hand with community organisations to provide free and affordable dental care for refugees and asylum seekers, who are especially vulnerable.

"It's important because a lot of people who have been refugees or asylum seekers have often been dislocated from their original home for quite long periods of time quite often. They've often had poor nutrition, no access to health and dental health services. Also some of their diet is very poor because that's all they can access so we often find that their oral health has not been looked after for a long time."

Often refugees and asylum seekers have issues with their teeth because they’ve been victims of torture. Experts advise to seek out early dental care which is provided free of charge.

"The main thing we want to do is to encourage people who are refugees or asylum seeker to seek out early care. And at least If we can get people into preventive programs, so we can at least not get them get worse than the situation they're in."

For more information about public dental services in your state or territory, visit your State Health Department's website.