Doctors dine out on $9m of unlimited food
Junior doctors are hoovering up more than $9 million worth of taxpayer-funded free lunches a year thanks to a historic contract clause that gives them an unlimited tab at hospital cafes.
There are no regulations governing how much resident medical officers (RMOs) spend each day or what they can buy from the cafes, but their union says icecream, confectionery, espresso coffees and energy drinks are "generally frowned upon".
On average junior doctors eat about $10 worth of food a day.
Nurses have a meal clause in their contract too, but are entitled to only $7.95 and only if they work more than an hour overtime, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation said.
On-duty resident doctors have not paid for a meal since 1948 and aspects of the controversial RMO provision have been hammered out in Auckland's High Court and before Christchurch's Employment Relations Authority.
Junior doctors are known to have abused this privilege in the past and DHBs are concerned about the ever-growing cost.
Fourteen of the country's 20 DHBs reported the cost increasing in the past five years, eight labelled the increase as "significant".
Auckland DHB figures show RMO meals cost $1.1m in the 2009-10 financial year, climbing to more than $1.4m in 2011-12.
The free-lunch clause has caused a rift between hospitals and the junior doctors' union, the Resident Doctors' Association (RDA), which negotiates their multi-employer collective agreement (MECA).
The hospitals say the clause is out of date and should have been scrapped when RMO hours were reduced, yet the union claims it is a cost-effective health and safety provision.
The current MECA, due to expire in September, is under negotiation.
Graham Dyer, chair of the DHBs' employment relations strategy group, said many aspects of the RMO contract were "unwieldy and out of date".
Junior doctors no longer spend the majority of their lives in hospitals, he said. The maximum was now 72 hours a week and the Medical Council's annual workforce report shows those hours continue to drop, with an average of 53 hours a week worked in 2011.
RDA national president Dr Curtis Walker said the free meals were a "health and safety provision" for resident doctors who staff hospitals 24/7 and can work up to 12 days in a row.
"The provision of a meal ensures that despite these demands on the doctors they get food and hydration during what are very long, physically and mentally demanding periods of duty. Money is no compensation for an unsafe workplace."
If the young doctors were entitled to a meal break, like most other employees, it would not only be more costly to DHBs but it would also mean doctors would have to hand over the care of their patients which could present clinical risks, he said.
The union wants the meal clause to remain unchanged in the current negotiations but "if somebody winds up with a massive tab" they would be questioned by the union, Walker said.
"Where cases of abuse are identified, we work with the DHBs to get to the bottom of it. We pull people into line because we don't want to see it being abused."
Walker, who uses the meal provision, said he would usually get a hot meal or a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a bottle of drink for lunch, which he estimated cost about $12.
"There is no such thing as a free lunch and this is not a free lunch," he said.
The Sunday Star-Times, visited Christchurch Hospital's cafe and witnessed a resident doctor buying lunch.
His deluxe corned beef sandwich, yoghurt, sausage roll, tomato sauce sachet, large chocolate-chip cookie and Diet Coke cost $17.80.
He carried his tray over to a table and sat down with two other colleagues, one who was eating two mince pies and a peppermint slice, and the other who had picked up a chocolate muffin and a piece of banana cake.
"They look like healthy lunches," the junior doctor laughed.
BY THE NUMBERS:
New Zealand's 20 DHBs employ around 3500 RMOs
DHBs invest around $450 million annually on RMO employment costs
Paying for RMO meals cost the taxpayer $9m last year
The lowest hourly rate of a resident doctor is $25.87
- © Fairfax NZ News
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