A Wellington medical practice based in a vulnerable community has scrapped free doctors' visits for schoolchildren as it faces a funding cut of more than $270,000.
Newtown Union Health Service is now charging $10 for children aged between 6 and 18 to see a GP. Under-6s remain free.
Adult fees also went up by $5 to $15 at the start of this month, after Capital & Coast District Health Board confirmed it was cutting funding for the year ahead by $274,000 – nearly 8 per cent of the practice's annual income.
The fee increases are the first in more than 15 years and come at the same time as the Government announced a hike in prescription fees from $3 to $5.
"It will be a struggle for some people," practice manager Fiona Osten said. "We're very anxious about what this is going to mean for the community, but we think at the moment it's better that we're here providing a service than going down the gurgler."
The practice's board would decide later this month which specialised services, such as diabetes, midwifery and mental health, were pared back or axed, she said.
"We understand the situation that the DHB is in with the deficit and making some savings themselves. However, the other side of that is we have to be sustainable as well."
Only a handful of practices in the Capital & Coast region do not charge school-aged children, according to figures released in January. Other practices charge between $5 and $53.
All practices can choose to join voluntary schemes that subsidise free visits for under-6s. As of January this year, 324,856 or 88.6 per cent of children under six had access to free consultations, the Health Ministry said.
Newtown Union Health was established in 1987 to ensure people most in need received high-quality healthcare.
It holds clinics out in the community to ensure people who would otherwise not go to the doctor are seen.
It provides care for about 6700 predominantly low-income families and individuals.
A motion put forward by Capital & Coast board member David Choat to protect Newtown Union was voted down by fellow members at a meeting last week.
Health Minister Tony Ryall has said in the past that primary care organisations should not hold reserves and that any money received should be spent completely on providing services.
Debbie Leyland, 47, who has been a patient at the medical centre for more than a decade, is circulating a petition and arranging a protest against the fee rises.
PRICE RISES A 'KICK IN THE BUTT'
The price hikes at Newtown Union Health will be just another "kick in the butt" for families already struggling, one regular patient says.
Georgina Templeton, 52, has two children in her care under the age of 18 and both are regulars at the health centre. Her 8-year-old son Tyler has glue ear while grandson Dreyton, 13, who is in her care after his mother died, is an asthmatic.
Ms Templeton, who works as a cleaner, takes her children to Newtown Union Health as it is the cheapest option. She is diabetic and all three have seen hikes in their consultation fees, with prescription charges to rise too.
"With a lot of jobs being cut, people being put off work and having to struggle with unemployment and all that ... some people are unable to eat, some can't pay their rent, some can't pay their power bill - they don't need another kick in the butt."
Ms Templeton said she took her children to the doctor once every two months and also needed regular care herself. "It's always going to be the poor who have to suffer... It will take a bit out of my grocery bill. I'll need to drop my power bill and my gas bill. It's just stressful."
- © Fairfax NZ News
Have you used an illegal drug within the past year?Related story: Global Drugs Survey: The politics of pot