Patients travelling for treatment suffering financial fallout
The Cancer Society has criticised a national travel scheme, saying it is not working for many in the region and long travel distances are creating a heavy burden for Southland patients seeking specialist care.
However, the Southern District Health Board says the National Travel Assistance Scheme works well for those who are covered by it.
Cancer Society Otago and Southland Division chief executive Rachael Hart said the criteria of the scheme had caused problems for patients within the region.
"The government have made it so difficult for patients to get financial assistance to cover the cost of travelling to treatment that in some cases patients are missing treatment.
"Here in Otago and Southland, you need a referral from a specialist, not a GP, to be eligible for transport assistance, and we often don't have a specialist where the people live so it's difficult for them to get help. That's just not fair.
"For example, people who need to travel between Queenstown and Invercargill, Alexandra and Dunedin or Invercargill and Dunedin for five or less appointments within six months are not eligible. Why should they be disadvantaged because of where they live?"
Hart said while the Cancer Society tried to lessen the burden for patients seeking treatment, more work needed to be done.
"In Otago and Southland we have 135 volunteers who drive over 30,000km a year transporting people to treatment, but it's not enough."
While there were volunteers placed in different areas around the region, there was a limited radius around where they could travel.
"The key thing is volunteer drivers can only drive people within a local area, the big gap is people who drive long distance.
"Volunteers in Invercargill can travel around town, but those people wouldn't be covered by [the NTAS].
"We would obviously like to see a solution where our people who need treatment can get to their appointments."
Southern District Health Board chief operating officer Lexi O'Shea said the scheme was a programme established to provide assistance to those in greatest need, helping them to access the care they require.
"We receive positive feedback from those who access this support, for whom it is certainly welcome and effective.
"All patients' circumstances are different, and we are not aware of this impacting on specific services more than others."
Invercargill woman Jenise Fitzgerald said the unwieldy nature of the scheme had been shown through her mother's ongoing battle with cancer.
Despite having to travel more than 200km from Invercargill to Dunedin to receive treatment, each year there was no guarantee whether she would be able to get compensation.
"For the past year she's had enough trips to qualify, but for a whole year before that she didn't get any funding.
"For someone going through all of that, it doesn't take much to make it difficult for them - you're just not in a good emotional space to deal with it."
Fitzgerald said the costs compiled further, when taking into account the need for accommodation costs.
"I think it's really unfair when you have to travel a lot longer than other people who do receive compensation.
"In some respect they have no choice – if you don't travel you don't get the treatment."
HOW IT WORKS
To be eligible for financial assistance under the scheme, patients have to be referred to a specialist by another specialist, and travel over a certain distance to receive treatment.
As well as covering travel costs, there is also scope within the scheme to contribute towards accommodation costs.
For one-off visits, the distance threshold is 350km one way, or 80km for children.
For those travelling 50km or more (25km for children), patients have to visit a specialist at least five times within six months.