The new Government’s first Budget for health is being called the beginning of a journey – and the health sector is viewing it as a step in the right direction but at a slower pace than hoped for.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson described the $1.5 billion boost in health funding as the “beginning of a journey to rebuild a health system that has simply not been given the resources to meet the demands of population growth and an ageing population over recent years”.

He also said that extra $549m for district health boards was the “bread and butter” funding that would mean more ringfenced money for mental health, the opportunity to update technology and “take pressure off over-worked staff”.  (See full details of Budget funding here)

 The health sector is generally welcoming the ‘bread and butter’ budget with its $750m commitment to rebuilding rundown hospital buildings, making GP visits cheaper to high needs population and $100m more for DHBs in deficit.  But after growing anticipation on what the first Labour led government in nine years would bring – there is also disappointment that along with ‘bread and butter ‘that Vote Health has not also included more ‘jam’ in the form of innovation or a bigger funding boost to reduce pressures on the health workforce. (See related stories on nursing and midwifery responses.)

 The Public Service Association, that represents allied health, mental health nurses and clerical staff all seeking catch-up pay increases, expressed disappointment that the Budget included no specific contingency allocation for equal pay.

“Additional funding for health should cover population changes and existing cost pressures, but there is nothing left to expand services into areas of great need – and nothing for pay equity or wage increases for hard-working employees,” said PSA National Secretaries Erin Polaczuk and Glenn Barclay in their post-election statement. “It  (pay equity) remains an ‘unquantified risk’, when there are specific claims already raised and unions want clarity around whether settlements will be funded.”  They said they knew the Budget represents a first step to remedying ‘nine years of National underspending” but it encouraged the Government to build on what it had started.

Dr Tim Malloy, president of the Royal New Zealand College of GPs, said the Budget would be welcome relief for patients needing to see their GP and it was ‘prudent’ to focus on high needs patients.  “Simply reducing GP fees won’t necessarily make GPs more accessible – in fact it might create an unmanageable peak in demand, which the current workforce might not be able to match.”  There was no specific funding for Labour’s election promise of a primary health care funding review but Malloy said he has been advised that announcement about a review of general practice funding was “likely” within the next two weeks.

Lyndon Keene, policy director for the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS), said Vote Health operational spending had increased by $833m which appeared to be sufficient funding to ‘at least’ maintain existing levels of service but was still a long way to go to address the longstanding funding shortfalls.

He said it was at early stages in assessing how DHBs would fare under the budget but it did mean that the current pressures facing hospital staff would continue this year.  He said the Government’s recognition of the burden on health staff was welcomed by senior doctors but the challenge now facing the Government was to make “meaningful headway on relieving those pressures for the benefit of clinical staff and patients.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation tweeted it’s disappointment that the addictions sector will have to wait until after the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry for any new money for treatment.  “That’s really disappointing,” it said.  “That leaves long-waiting lists and people who need help missing out.”

There was also no specific funding tagged for aged care or home care – with any extra funding having to come from the extra $549m allocated to DHBs.

New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA) chief executive Simon Wallace said it was not a bad Budget in terms of meeting expectations around health. “However what we’d like to see is more specific information on how that DHB money will be allocated.”

Julie Haggie from the Home and Community Health Association agreed, saying that the sector was concerned with how the DHBs would approach cost pressure funding for home care providers.

Alzheimers NZ expressed its disappointed that the Budget did not include enhanced specialist dementia services for the many thousands of Kiwis with dementia with chief executive Catherine Hall saying she hoped the Government took the opportunity to address the issue as part of the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry.

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