This article was written by Peter Wilson for RNZ (Radio New Zealand). Published October 28, 2022. To access the original article, click here.
Analysis – Another week of bad news for the government as hospital waiting times hit the headlines and National charges in, fair pay legislation is passed by Parliament but it won’t last long if Labour loses the next election, and the 12 things National will scrap if it wins.
Last week it was the cost of living, this week it has been the state of the health system and hospital waiting times.
They’re both bad news for the government and there’s no quick fix for either.
A third death began the spate of reports which forced Health Minister Andrew Little to defend the health system, RNZ reported.
The first was at Middlemore in June and the second was in Christchurch last week – both patients initially left emergency departments due to long wait times.
The third was a four-year-old boy who died in Wellington Hospital last month. His parents went public this week, questioning whether he would still be alive if medical staff had acted with more urgency.
The boy’s case was extensively reported and is under investigation.
Attention was focused on ED waiting times and the background is this: In 2009 the then National-led government set a target of 95 per cent of patients being admitted, discharged or transferred within six hours.
It set other health targets as well, but that was the one that gained most attention. The then health minister, Tony Ryall, put the hard word on district health boards and kept them under the hammer.
In June 2020 the nationwide figure was just over 90 per cent and its now down to 76 per cent, the Herald reported.
Labour opposed the targets when they were introduced, saying they forced hospitals to throw resources at them at the expense of care elsewhere. It dropped them when it came to power but waiting times continued to be measured.
That’s what has given the opposition a big stick to beat the government with, and National’s leader Christopher Luxon wielded it this week.
“I think we’ve gone from something like 9 per cent of people waiting more than six hours to see an emergency department to now almost a quarter of New Zealanders having to wait more than six hours,” he said.
The government had overseen “five years of utter failure” he claimed.
It wasn’t just waiting times. Luxon also cited the time it takes for a first specialist appointment and the four months or longer he said it took for first surgeries.
Little was asked if he would resign in a year’s time if ED waiting times had not been fixed, RNZ reported.
He replied that the public would get to have its say at the 2023 election.
Indeed it will, and National will make sure it’s an election issue.
For months ministers have been saying the pandemic had stripped hospitals of resources, the winter was one of the worst on record for respiratory infections, Covid-19 was still hitting staff numbers, and the previous government under-funded the health system.
Little said this week record numbers were turning up at EDs.
“Our EDs are on the receiving end of record presentations this year – over 100,000 in June; over 100,000 again in August – and I stand behind and stand with the amazing health workforce that we have providing care to people,” he said.
With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern away in Antarctica this week, acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson was in the hot seat in Parliament when Luxon launched his attack.
Luxon to Robertson: Is he aware that in the six years before his government took office, the proportion of ED patients seen within six hours was never less than 91 per cent – a figure Labour hasn’t achieved throughout the seasons now for four straight years?”
Robertson: “What I am aware of is a health system that we inherited that was in a complete mess, with underfunding of mental health, underfunding of public health, and underfunding of primary care. That is actually what we inherited. We know that there is always more to do in our health system, but this government can stand proud on a record of funding that his party can’t.”
Luxon doesn’t buy underfunding by the previous government as a reason for what’s happening now, and he doesn’t think the public will either.
“Does he really think that, after five years in government, Kiwis being denied healthcare because of dangerously short-staffed emergency departments are going to buy his desperate attempt to blame previous governments for failures that are happening on his watch?” he asked.
Robertson replied buy saying the number of doctors and nurses had increased 20 per cent under Labour.
“They (Kiwis) see a health workforce where we’re actually funding the building of health infrastructure instead of the National Party who had zero dollars for two consecutive years for health infrastructure. We know it takes long-term, sustained investment to build a health system and that’s what we’re doing.”