October 12, 2008

Downturn Spurs Nats to Trim Health Policy


National has been forced to trim its election health pledges due to tough economic times.

Policies shed include a costly $40 million insurance rebate for seniors, while questions remain about the fate of funding plans for breast cancer drug Herceptin and Plunketline.

On the campaign trail yesterday at a Palmerston North medical centre, National leader John Key unveiled plans to fund 20 new elective surgery theatres and train 800 additional surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses to staff them.

Under the plan, Christchurch would get a minimum of two new surgery theatres, able to carry out an extra 3000 operations a year. Nelson and Marlborough were also likely to get new facilities.

"With the large amounts of money that have been poured into the health system in recent years, New Zealanders are entitled to expect a much more significant improvement to health services than they have had to date," Key said.

The health budget has roughly doubled since Labour came to power, hitting $12.2 billion in 2008/2009.

Key said National's plan to slash hospital waiting lists - at a cost of about $345m over five years - would be funded from within the allocations announced by Finance Minister Michael Cullen this week in the pre-election fiscal update.

Key said fewer operations were being performed per capita since 2002, and the average waiting time had increased from 55 days to 75.

An earlier draft of National's policy document was obtained by the Government in September and released to the media.

That draft contained several pledges that appeared to have been dropped from the final version, including the 30 per cent rebate on health insurance for seniors.

Also dropped was the introduction of a star rating for District Health Boards to improve performance.

National health spokesman Tony Ryall was reluctant to comment on the dropped pledges but confirmed there were no longer plans for the rebate. "I would draw your attention to the fact we are under difficult financial restraints with priorities needing to be drawn," he said.

Two other popular policies were contained in the earlier draft but absent in yesterday's release - funding for 12 months access to the breast cancer drug Herceptin and for Plunketline.

Ryall indicated National still supported funding for Herceptin and further announcements may be made.

Asked about the funding for Plunketline he said: "That was a draft someone left in a coffee shop."

He said a review of elective surgery capacity at each hospital in the country would be undertaken to determine where the new theatres would be built, but there would be at least two in Christchurch. Data obtained under the Official Information Act from the Canterbury District Health Board showed there were 22 operating theatres in the Canterbury region, of which 20.5 were resourced.

Ryall said it would be a challenge to find the new medical staff.

The country could not afford to wait for new surgeons and other medical professionals to be trained.

Measures were being prepared to address the growing exodus of health workers abroad, he said.

Minister of Health David Cunliffe said the National plan was an "unworkable imitation of current Labour Party policy" and questioned where National would find the additional medical staff given the shortages.

The only way to build 20 theatres would be through privatisation, he said.



* Build 20 new dedicated elective surgery theatres over five years: $36m a year.

* Train 800 extra medical professionals: $20m a year.

* More use of private hospitals to support elective surgery.

* Encourage GPs to do minor surgery.

* Provide $13m a year to kick-start devolution of services to primary care. --------------------

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