Invocing grieving families for cremation certificates so that doctors can enjoy barbecues, televisions and couches is done for the "collective good", the national secretary of the junior doctors' union says.
A Dominion Post investigation published yesterday revealed how doctors in many district health boards are pooling tens of thousands of dollars a year by charging "ash cash" fees, on top of their salaries, with the bonus revenue used to fund social events.
The money is collected within the DHBs by junior doctors' social clubs, and they are entitled to spend that money however they wish.
But critics have called the process "ghoulish" and "inappropriate". Some of the larger DHBs - Capital & Coast, Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waikato - now refuse to charge the fees.
Deborah Powell, national secretary of the New Zealand Resident Doctors' Association, said doctors in those DHBs that continued to bill for "ash cash" should be congratulated on how they were spending their perks.
"They're choosing to use it for the collective good, and I think they should be congratulated for that. They could take the money and bank it, but they're not."
The cremation certificates take doctors about 10 minutes to fill out. They are filled during doctors' regular work hours and are a prescribed part of their job.
They verify bodies are suitable for cremation and note whether potentially explosive pacemakers have been removed.
The fee is invoiced to funeral directors, who in turn pass it on to families of the dead person.
Dr Powell admitted some DHBs were comfortably surviving without charging the fees, but said the money generated - which was used to fund TVs, couches, barbecues and morning teas for staff - was good for morale.
"They do use it to put things into the [junior doctors'] lounge. That's [their] space to take time out and have a bit of a break. They may use it to put couches in, TVs, things like that . . . it's beneficial.
"It's being used to do some good things that otherwise I guess may not happen."
Labour health spokeswoman Maryan Street said collecting fees from the estates of the dead was ghoulish.
"I don't see why this should entail a cost for the grieving families . . . I just thought it was part of [doctors'] normal duties.
"There's something ghoulish and entirely inappropriate for this to be made into a perk for junior doctors," she said.
Acting Health Minister Jo Goodhew said ash cash was a hangover from the past and the practice would be canned.
"All DHBs have agreed to ensure that the practice of charging for the service ceases. Some have completed this process already and others are in the process of doing so."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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