Travel costs 'Kiwi' $73,000
Kathryn Mair was only an infant when her family arrived to New Zealand aboard the Captain Cook in 1955.
The 63-year-old always considered herself a British-born New Zealander, a feeling that amplified when she returned to England in 1996 on a belated OE.
Travelling under a British passport, the Dunedin woman returned to her hometown of Bedford, but "felt like a total stranger.
"I couldn't wait to get home."
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It took three years to save to return to New Zealand, and on her return she was stopped at the border and told her she did not have the appropriate entry visa.
"I just assumed I was a permanent resident, no-one told me I wasn't."
Told by Immigration New Zealand to sort the matter out at her convenience, it was not raised again until she sought treatment at Dunedin Hospital several years ago.
After listing England as her country of birth, authorities came back and told a shocked Mair she was an "illegal" resident.
"I'm a New Zealander. I talk like one, and I have lived here since I was a baby," Mair said while wiping away tears.
The cause of her stress is an $73,000 health bill for cardiovascular and rheumatology surgery for the period she was deemed a non-resident.
Mair sought help from her local Dunedin South MP, Clare Curran, after she was denied an appointment to help with her crippling arthritis.
After Curran intervened, Mair was once again a permanent resident by July 2015. That means she won't be charged when she undergoes surgery to remove some of her knuckles this month.
"People like Kathryn are the collateral damage of a system that is hell bent on cost recovery and unresponsive to the circumstances," Curran said.
Mair had spent all but several of her years in New Zealand, and her mistake over permanent residency "cannot be completely attributed to her".
Curran said Mair, who has battled mental health, was a "vulnerable person in a complex system which has now landed her with a massive bill for health services she should have been entitled to".
However, health authorities appear reluctant to wipe the debt for the time when she was an illegal resident.
Mair, a former caregiver, receives a benefit of $16,400 a year, and has no house, no car and no means to pay the debt.
"I don't own a damn thing.
"I feel intimidated. I am waiting for someone to knock on the door and take the clothes out of my drawers because they are the only things I own.
"I have lived here all but three years, and when I could work I worked and paid taxes."
And she has a message for Health Minister, Dr Jonathan Coleman: "Wipe the bill, I can't pay it.
"I know Dunedin Hospital is broke, but that's not my fault."
Curran urged Coleman to look at her case and exercise "some humanity".
A spokeswoman for Coleman said she was unable to comment on the case, other than to confirm there had been correspondence exchanged between the minister and Mair.
Ministry of Health system outcomes group manager Sam Kunowski said neither the minister nor the Ministry of Health had any authority or discretion to waive a debt.
That decision was with the provider; in this case, the cash-strapped Southern District Health Board.
A spokeswoman said the DHB was aware of the case, but was not in a position to respond until next week as it was "short-staffed".
- Sunday Star Times