New Zealand Dental Association welcomes Labour Party’s free dental care as elections bite down

The New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) has said that it welcomes the Labour Party’s campaign pledge to extend free dental care to New Zealanders under 30 years of age if re-elected.

NZDA president Dr Amanda Johnston said in a press release on 5 Sep that the association is delighted by Labour’s announcement and commitment to addressing the oral health crisis in New Zealand.

“Access to affordable and accessible dental care is an issue for almost half of the population, and this has become more acute with the sharp rise in the cost of living,” said Dr Johnston. “By extending free dental care to those up to 30 years of age, we can prevent many acute dental emergencies experienced in this age range and set up good oral health for life.”

The NZDA has been calling on the authorities to do more to improve dental access and affordability since 20 March on world oral health day. Citing a rise in the cost of living as a barrier to dental care, it supported extending free dental care for those aged 18-25 as one the most effective ways to improve oral health outcomes.

“NZDA has advocated for a targeted support package to provide more funded oral healthcare, so we commend Labour for rising to the challenge. We now wait to see if National and others have taken note and will join Labour, Greens and TOP in pledging greater support for oral health provision in upcoming health policy announcements,” Dr Johnston added.

The free dental care package announced by the Labour Party on 2 Sep intends to cover annual check-ups, teeth cleaning, basic fillings and extractions, with the government promising to prioritise 18 to 23-year-olds from July 2025, and those up to 30 years of age the following year. The package is costed at NZ$390m (US$229.24m) over the four years from 2024 and is estimated to expand free basic dental care to nearly 800,000 under 30-year-olds.

“New Zealand has some of the highest recorded rates of unmet need for adult dental care – overwhelmingly because of cost,” said party leader Chris Hipkins. “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. The policy I’m announcing is part of Labour’s 10-point Cost of Living Plan, and an integral part of our wider series of targeted cost of living investments.”

The NZDA acknowledges the challenges in Hipkins’ announcements but believes extending free dental care for those aged 18-25 as one the most effective ways to improve oral health outcomes (Image: RNZ/ Samiel Rillstone)

According to the NZDA, research shows that dental visits drop off dramatically after age 18 when eligibility for government funded dentistry expires, and the main reason is cost. It added that there will be some challenges to work through to deliver on this pledge and some of those were acknowledged by the Prime Minister in his announcement.

“We know that by extending care to this group, we will be able to deliver the biggest gains in terms of enduring oral health benefits for New Zealanders,” said Dr Johnston. “Initially we would need to work with the government to review the funding model to make it workable for more dentists. We would also need time to increase the workforce to meet the increased demand. Access to dental services in some rural and regional areas is already stretched. Support will need to be given to those areas to provide equitable services across the country.”

Despite the NZDA’s support, the Labour Party’s plan has drawn its fair share of opposition. The National Party’s Health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti said that the cavities are already showing in Labour’s dental announcement, with massive cost blow-outs and no track record of delivery.

“In 2020, Labour’s then Health Minister Chris Hipkins said offering free dental care to adults would be unlikely due to the economic conditions. Since then, New Zealand’s economic conditions have only deteriorated. This U-turn screams desperation and is a weak attempt to cling to power,” said Dr Reti. “Last election Labour promised to deliver 20 mobile dental units in their first year – but failed to deliver a single one in three years. Why should New Zealanders trust an even bigger dental promise when there is a track record of non-delivery?”

The Labour Party will need to win support if it is to secure a third term as dental care remains a focus of the campaign trail. Yesterday, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) led its first-ever strike action, walking off the job between noon and 2pm. More than 100 senior doctors and dentists reportedly gathered along Christchurch’s Riccarton Ave, opposite the city’s hospital. A further strike from 10am-12pm on 13 Sep has been planned with another a four-hour strike on 21 Sep to follow.​

The dissolution of parliament is set for 8 Sep and election day on 14 Oct.