Labour’s plan extends eligibility to 23-year-olds from 2025 and to 29-year-olds by 2026, meaning 40 per cent of the population would be eligible within three years.
The long lead-in time is because the country doesn’t have the health workforce to support a shift currently.
The plan, which will cost $NZ380 million ($350 million) over four years, will focus first on attracting and training dentists.
“Labour knows such a fundamental change in our public health settings needs to be carefully designed,” Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said.
“Choosing a start date of July 1, 2025 means we have time to enable the sector to prepare, which is why we’re rolling out the policy in stages.”
The phased in approach is incongruous with Hipkins including the policy in part of Labour’s promised 10-point cost of living plan, given it won’t take effect for at least two years.
The pledge also takes some of the wind from the Greens, who are offering universal basic dental care, funded by a wealth tax.
Labour needs to claw back lost support if it is to win a third term.
After winning 50 per cent of the party vote under Jacinda Ardern at the 2020 election, it is now polling around 30 per cent and trails National in a tight race.
Pundits see Labour going negative in its efforts to peg back centre-right opponents National, and Hipkins included plenty of attack lines in his 35-minute speech.
“I see the National-ACT-New Zealand First coalition of cuts lining up to take us backwards, removing hard won gains, and stopping progress on so many urgent things that matter,” he said.
Labour also trails both National and right-wingers ACT in fundraising.
Radio NZ reports National has raked in $NZ8.2 million in donations since the start of 2021, with ACT taking in $NZ4.2 million. The Greens are next best, with $NZ1.4 million, even ahead of Labour on NZ$1.1 million.
While National has been campaigning all year, releasing dozens of policies, Labour has made few campaign pledges until this month, besides taking GST off fruit and vegetables to make them 13 per cent cheaper, new vaping restrictions and four weeks parental leave for partners during childbirth.
On Sunday, the campaign focus will switch sides to National, when leader Chris Luxon launches his party’s drive in south Auckland.