Hospital staff asked to cut costs

Wellington patient care could be put at risk as the district health board makes a last-ditch push to avoid a budget blowout, unions are warning.

Staff at Capital & Coast District Health Board are being asked to cut down on clinical supplies and overtime, and take a holiday within the next six weeks.

It is part of a push to cram in as many savings as possible before the end of the financial year in the hope that the DHB will avoid blowing the budget.

Unions have blamed the Government for the looming shortfall by "chronically underfunding" DHBs for years, stretching staff and potentially risking patient safety.

In a memo to staff on Friday, interim chief executive Debbie Chin said the DHB had been hit by a "sudden deterioration" in its finances.

"We need to find a 5 per cent saving over the next six weeks. We need to look for every opportunity," she said.

Cuts would not "directly impact on the safety and care of our patients", but could include "further efficiencies" in clinical supply, overtime and a quick holiday for "non-frontline staff".

Nurses Organisation industrial adviser Lesley Harry said some members feared the widespread call for holidays could leave wards severely understaffed.

"When these decisions are made around fiscal constraints, that obligation can collide with the obligation to provide safe care."

It was unclear exactly how the quick cuts would be made, she said. The organisation was urgently seeking a meeting with the DHB to seek assurances that patient safety would not be compromised.

Chin was not available for comment yesterday, but in a statement said any cuts would not put patient safety at risk. "But like everyone, we need to live within our means."

She did not comment on why there had been a "sudden deterioration" in the DHB's finances, but the memo indicates that changes in the use of casual staff and clinical supplies had not saved as much money as expected.

Ian Powell, Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director, said such an urgent call for wide-ranging cuts was unwise, even if it was clear patient safety was not at risk. "It creates a risk of panic and erratic decision-making."

The DHB's financial woes were partly a debt hangover from a big hospital upgrade in Wellington, but also reflected wider underfunding of DHBs, he said.

"They are simply squeezing too hard and investing too little . . . When people are stretched, that's when things go astray."

Health Minister Tony Ryall rejected the suggestion that DHBs were being underfunded, saying there had been a jump of more than $130m in funding for CCDHB alone since National took office, and the board's deficit had been slowly cut through careful management.

"Capital & Coast has been given more than its share of funding," he said.

The DHB has been running multimillion-dollar deficits since 2007, peaking at $67m in 2009, and regularly receives emergency top-up funding from the Ministry of Health.

By last year it had clawed the deficit back to $9m through aggressive cost-cutting, but not without casualties.

Several board members have resigned, claiming the cuts were threatening patient care, and three chief executives have quit in the past seven years.

The Dominion Post