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Government Misleading Parents By Falsely Advertising Closure Of Dental Program

"Why are you providing this information to people when it's false?"

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Last month the government attempted to pass its Omnibus Bill cuts to the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS), which would remove Medicare funded dental care for kids from January 1, 2017.

But after opposition from the Greens, Labor and the Nick Xenophon Team in the Senate, the CDBS was removed from the Omnibus legislation to allow the rest of the $6.4 billion savings to pass.

This is the second time the government has tried to shut down the program. From the May budget, initial fact sheets began advertising that it would close on July 1, 2016. But a double dissolution election was called, so legislation wasn't introduced.

Despite parliament not approving the closure, the Health Department's website currently states the scheme will end in January, and fact sheets are being distributed to dentists to say that the program will no longer exist in three months.

The website reads:

On 31 August 2016, the Government introduced legislation to close the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS) from 1 January 2017 and establish the Child and Adult Public Dental Scheme.

Eligible children will need to receive dental treatment before 1 January 2017 if they wish to access benefits under CDBS before its intended closure.

The department's website also states that the government has sent out letters to families, telling them the scheme is closing.

In a fiery exchange in Senate estimates on Wednesday, Health Department officials said advertising the scheme's closure wasn't "false" because it's "the intent to legislate to have [the closure] in place by January 1, 2017".

If it doesn't happen in the next three months, the date will be revised for a third time, they said.

"It's not a lie," the department's Mark Cormack said.

"It's qualified. It expresses the government's intention that it's subject to legislation."

But Greens leader Richard di Natale believes "ordinary punters" wouldn't be able to interpret the nuance of government jargon.

"If you read 'this means the cost of dental services provided on or after January 1, 2017 will not be met by the government and will need to be met by the patient'... you are actively dissuading people from accessing a scheme that is currently open."

Di Natale has accused the government of actively deterring people from accessing the funding, in a bid to save money before the program can be closed.

The Australian National Audit Office examined the progress of the demand-driven program and found the take-up had been low, around 33%, or 1 million children.

Only $304 million was claimed out of a total budget of more than $600 million.

The ANAO noted that this was due to the government not advertising its availability, so families were unaware they could claim the funding.

Di Natale says it's highly unusual for the government to actively market for legislation it hopes will pass in the future.

"It's the intent of the government to have a plebiscite on marriage equality, but you're not posting information to people about the nature of the plebiscite," he said.

"You can't give any guarantee that it will be closed from January 1, in fact the parliament's just rejected it, and you continue to provide advice on the website to people who want to access it that they can't," he said.

"Sometimes these are people who need to engage in a course of treatment that might require two, three, four months. If you're going to see your dentist in a month's time and they say 'well, we can't, because at the department website says this program will no longer exist from January 1, we're not going to begin treatment at this point in time'."

"Why are you providing this information to people when it's false?"

Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.

Contact Alice Workman at alice.workman@buzzfeed.com.

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