The Mad Monk deserves a new title: last night’s efforts should see him re-christened the Minister for Disease.

A true Health Minister might have announced a comprehensive strategy for improving the nation’s oral health. Instead his dental health initiative symbolises much of what is wrong with our so-called health system, in which funding can be found to treat dental problems only when they’re so bad that they’re making sick people even sicker.

There was no mention of a population-based strategy for preventing dental problems developing in the first place, or for ensuring they’re treated early, or for ensuring prevention and treatment is targeted at those who most need it (politically unpopular groups like the poor). It’s a classic example of a system which rewards those who make a living out of treating disease, rather than those who prevent it.

Of course, it’s important to make sure those who need care can get it (not that this was of concern to the Government previously, when it was happy to leave dental care languishing as a pawn in its battles with the states). But the new measure – expected to provide dental services for 200,000 people with chronic health conditions over four years – will hardly make a dent in the 650,000 people estimated to be waiting for public dental treatment.

The measure, it seems, is not so much about improving dental health as about being seen to be doing something about it. “What’s so sad is that it’s a real politician’s approach to health; everything about today and no interest in tomorrow,” says Professor Mike Daube, Professor of Health Policy, at Curtin University of Technology in Perth.

Not that anyone should be surprised, given this Government and Minister’s determination to avoid big-picture health reforms in favour of tinkering incrementalism.

“Developing strategies would give them more ownership of the system than they want,” comments Mr Bob Wells, Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the ANU. (And he should know, as a former senior federal health bureaucrat).

Meanwhile, prominent Sydney psychiatrist Professor Ian Hickie – grinning from the budget’s large injection into medical research infrastructure, including to his Brain & Mind Research Institute – argues that the health industry, rather than the Government, should be blamed for any budget shortcomings.

The health industry is happier arguing for more money for existing services than for changing the “illness-driven system” of Medicare. Hickie also believes the Federal Health Department is so focused on improving the care of people with chronic diseases that it’s quite lost track of the merits of prevention. If they need some ideas for what a national oral health strategy might look like, they need look no further than this.