New Health Minister David Clark ­– making his first major speech – said it was time the Government listened to the health workers placed under ‘massive strain’ by health underfunding.

Clark, while addressing the Association of Salaried Medical Specialist’s annual conference today, said underfunding of the health system was ‘real’ and he wanted to thank the efforts of the thousands of “hardworking and committed staff that have kept our health system running”.  He also told the conference that the new government intended to “fix” the health sector as it had been neglected by the previous government and underfunding of the health system had placed a “massive strain” on the health system, particular staff.

Ian Powell, executive director of ASMS said the new minister had “pressed all the right buttons” with his address to senior doctors and dentists at the conference including acknowledging the work of ASMS members in “helping hold together the public health system during a sustained period of neglect”.

During the speech Clark re-iterated Labour’s commitment to invest an extra $8 billion over the next four years – with the biggest chunk of that extra spending not budgeted for until 2019 and beyond*. But his speech notes were not big on policy detail beyond repeating the government’s commitment to initiating a ministerial inquiry into mental health and that the government had signalled changes in primary care to help address the inequalities in access and were also concerned about the inequalities and underfunding of secondary care.

Clark also emphasised he wanted to rebuild relationships across the health sector that had been “seriously strained” in recent years and that was also his expectation for the Ministry of Health. He told the conference delegates that he had visited seven DHBs in his first three weeks as Minister and aimed to visit as many more as he could before Christmas, as he wanted to make sure that everybody was “on the same page and heading in the right direction”.

“Doctors, nurses, midwives, allied health workers and others all know the issues within the health system,” said Clark.  “It’s time the Government listened to you too.”  He also said it was time the health system did better and improving health outcomes for all New Zealanders would require everybody working together from the Minister’s office right through to the Ministry of Health, individual DHBs, unions and all staff in the sector.

“But to repair the damage of the last nine years and to achieve the change required in the health system, we need everyone to step-up,” said Clark.

He said he was heartened by the conversations he had already had up and down the country as Opposition spokesperson and now as Minister. And his message across the health sector as a new Minister was that he wanted “free and frank advice”.  During the speech Clark also told the gathering that his mother trained as a doctor when he was a child and he spent his school holidays in medical school lectures.

Powell said the minister’s acknowledgement of ongoing pressures on the senior medical workforce including burnout, social inequialities and widespread unmet health need resonated with delegates who dealt with the consequences of these issues “every day in their working lives”.

Powell also praised the Minister’s “clear commitment” to properly resourcing and funding public health services.  “It sends a strong signal to the health sector that the neglect of the past is going to change, and we welcome that.”

*On the funding front Labour’s health policy includes an extra $8 Billion in the next four years, above what was already committed by the previous Government but mostly in the latter half of that four years.  Its pre-election fiscal plan included a commitment to “pay back National’s underfunding” starting with $21 million in the 2017-18 year and then $293 million a year “pay back” money for the following four financial years.

Labour’s fiscal plan also includes an extra boost for health funding in general starting with an extra $554 million in 2018-19 and increasing progressively to an extra $2.8 billion in 2021-22.

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