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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

Question No. 2—Health

2. Dr SHANE RETI (Deputy Leader—National) to the Minister of Health: How many patients are overdue for their first specialist assessment, and for receiving treatment, within the target time frames of four months?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE (Minister of Health): To the first part of the question, the latest data from June 2021 shows 14,718 patients are waiting longer than four months for their first specialist assessment. This represents 12.1 percent of all patients currently waiting for their first specialist assessment. I note that this does not include patients waiting for their first specialist assessment at Waikato District Health Board as these statistics are not currently available because of the recent cyber-attack. To the second part of the question, 13,670 patients are waiting longer than four months for treatment. This represents 23 percent of all patients waiting for treatment.

Dr Shane Reti: What responsibility, if any, does he take for the fact that since Labour came to power in 2017 the number of overdue patients waiting more than four months for their first specialist assessment has grown by an average of 10 people every single day they have been in office?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE: I wouldn’t quite characterise it the way that the member has characterised it himself just now. But one thing that, of course, the Government cannot take responsibility for is the arrival of the virus the COVID-19 bug, and that has created extraordinary circumstances for this country and every other country in the world. So following a four-week lockdown, this Government put additional funding into our health system—$282.5 million—to catch up on planned care that had not been able to be given, plus also to clear other waiting backlogs. Of course, even after that funding was approved, there were further lockdowns at level 3 and level 2 that caused further delays in treatment available through our hospital system. This Government, in addition to the $282.5 million last year, put in an additional $90 million this year and in response to the extraordinary circumstances is doing extraordinary things to assist people to get the care that they need.

Dr Shane Reti: What impact does waiting longer than four months to see a cancer specialist have on the outlook of that patient or on their mental health?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE: I think any patient waiting for care is going to be very concerned and that’s why they are encouraged to maintain contact with their GP and, once they’ve seen a specialist, with that specialist. But this is a health system that for a whole variety of reasons is under very great pressure and we are doing everything we can, including additional resourcing and additional clinical leadership, to make sure that our hospitals are managing the demands placed upon them as best as possible.

Dr Shane Reti: How does he explain why, in just four years since Labour took office, the number of overdue patients at the Taranaki DHB waiting for a first specialist assessment has grown from 11 to more than 3,000?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE: I’m not quite sure what planet that member has been on for the last 18 months, but we are a country, like every other country in the world, that is responding to a pandemic that resulted in this country, effectively, being locked down for four weeks in March and April last year. That caused a significant backlog of cases in our health system. But we put in additional resources for hospitals, our DHBs as they currently are, to get those procedures done over a period of three years to clear their backlogs. The waiting lists that were in existence in June last year have reduced and are continuing to reduce and we are continuing to do everything we can to alleviate that pressure from our hospitals.

Dr Shane Reti: Can he confirm that the 3,160 people overdue a first specialist assessment in Taranaki is now greater than the number overdue in the entire South Island, and will another 10 people be added to the overdue waiting list in Taranaki tomorrow?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE: I say what I have said already today, and that is that ours is a health system that is under extraordinary pressure. One of the reasons why we took the judgment we did and the approach we took on COVID-19 is precisely because of the years of failure to invest by the previous Government in our health system. We had to protect it from the kind of demand that they could have been under had we not managed to control the outbreak of the pandemic. We did manage to do that but it still continues to put pressure on our system. We still continue to provide additional resourcing and additional support and additional clinical leadership to assist all DHBs to clear the backlogs that they have.

Dr Shane Reti: Were the numbers for overdue patients waiting for first specialist assessment more than four months at Waikato DHB several thousand, and do these need to be added to the numbers he’s quoted today?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE: I can’t confirm what the figures are from the Waikato District Health Board precisely because their systems don’t allow them to provide that data to the Ministry of Health. But what I can say is they will be—without the cyber-attack and the consequences of that—no different to any other DHB managing a backlog of planned care because of the pandemic. They are now managing an additional backlog because of the cyber-attack that they have suffered and they’ve continued to get additional help and additional resources from the Ministry of Health to manage through that particular event that they’ve suffered this year

Dr Shane Reti: What does he say to the elderly lady living alone who contacted me this week saying that she was told in April she would get her cataracts treated but now more than four months later is so blind that she is suffering from falls around her home?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE: That is a very distressing thing to hear and I hope that that woman is able to get the care and help that she can through her GP and through assisted care available in the community, and her DHB should be assisting her to provide that.