Every three years dental care comes up as an election issue, but Jacinda Ardern says it’s an ‘enormously expensive’ policy and there are competing priorities

The Labour leader says free dental care for all is an easy political win, given absolutely nobody would ever oppose it – but it doesn’t stack up financially.

It’s an issue that comes up every election cycle when voters are asked to prioritise the issues they’re facing and would like to see addressed in the lead-up to the country heading to the polls.

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But the Prime Minister is practical about the cost involved and in an interview with Newsroom, said there would always be restraints on government spending.

“Everyone would love New Zealand to have free dental care in principle, I mean who would be opposed to that? It’s massively expensive.

“When we came into office, the deficit we were facing in health investment was huge. It would have been irresponsible to launch ourselves down a path of funding an enormously expensive initiative when our health system itself was creaking at the seams.”

Asked if she was considering widening dental grants to more people, Ardern said that’s exactly what the Government did when it more than tripled the emergency grant for low-income people in 2021.

Back then, the current maximum grant for emergency help through Work and Income was $300 and in the May 2021 Budget it was increased to $1000.

Not prepared to rule in or out any further changes to the party’s policy or manifesto in election year, Ardern would only say, “that’s what we’ve done for now, because that’s what we’ve been able to do”.

“But I think it would be unfair not to acknowledge the massive investment that has gone into every other part of the health system,” Ardern said.

When Labour came into power in 2017 there were many areas that needed investing in, such as mental health, elective surgery and Pharmac, she said.

“We’ve had a 43 percent increase in Pharmac funding, but there is a limited pot of money for us to invest. We’ve prioritised it within the health system but we’ve not been able to go all the way through to free dental.

“Under 18, yes, low income, yes, but everyone, no.”

In 2020 Labour promised and subsequently delivered an increase to the amount of money people on low incomes could access to pay for urgent dental care.

In addition, school-aged children living in remote and hard to reach areas were meant to benefit from an investment in up to 20 additional mobile dental clinics with full services, if Labour got back in power.

Those clinics haven’t arrived and Ardern told Newsroom that was due to issues getting the particular type of vehicles used for the mobile clinics into the country.

Free or improved access to dental care has been part of Labour and National’s political rhetoric for years, but only the Greens have committed to making it free.

It’s currently free in New Zealand up until the age of 18.

“Obviously dental has been on our radar because of what we’ve already done, and it still is, but equally so is just making sure that we strengthen our health system.”
– Jacinda Ardern

During a debate in September 2020, then-Health Minister Chris Hipkins said, “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.”

That economic environment has only worsened with the country in the middle of a full-blown cost of living crisis, making it even more unlikely the targeted approach to free dental care will significantly extend beyond low-income families and under-18s.

Ardern acknowledged free dental care across the board would be a welcome policy but said consistent access to all healthcare services across the country was what most people told her they wanted.

The Government’s health care reforms that started in July last year with a new Health NZ and Māori Health Authority – ridding the country of the 20 District Health Boards that had been delivering primary care services – is what Ardern points to as her solution to the postcode lottery that exists.

“Obviously dental has been on our radar because of what we’ve already done, and it still is, but equally so is just making sure that we strengthen our health system,” Ardern told Newsroom.

When Labour came into office in 2017, the responsible thing was to work on the health reforms, which were designed to provide consistent healthcare for people across the country.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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