Patients may pay

01:07, Feb 12 2014

Wakatipu residents could face a hike in the cost to see their family doctor if the region loses its rural funding status.

Residents already pay among the highest fees in New Zealand to see a doctor, then have their health bills bolstered by having to travel to see specialists and get to a base hospital, the nearest more than two hours away in Invercargill.

The threat comes after a committee of the Southern District Health Board announced the region did not meet new national criteria for rural funding, specifically exceeding the population cap of 15,000.

The Wakatipu population at the last census was slightly more than 28,000.

The board has since backtracked and says no final decisions have been made.

Board planning and funding executive director Sandra Boardman said the board was not bound by the national criteria.


A rural advisory group would be put together with members including rural GPs from throughout Otago and Southland who would advise the Southern Health Alliance Leadership Team (SHALT).

That team, made up of mostly health board executives, some industry representatives and led by independent chairman Robin Gauld, a University of Otago professor, would make the final decision on rural funding allocations.

Southern Primary Health Organisation chief executive Ian Macara said the board received about $3.5 million in funding and that was expected to grow after the Government announced an increase last year.

The three practices in the Wakatipu area received a total of about $300,000 which was to be used for covering after hours services, funding and rural bonus funding.

Wakatipu Medical centre GP Val Miller said losing the rural funding would be like a slap in the face.

The centre, which had up to one-quarter of registered citizens on its books, could not afford to absorb any more costs.

''If they take it [the rural funding away] it will  have to be passed on to the patient. The ones that will be hit will be the locals once again.They're the people who have to travel to get specialist care, hospital care, surgery or anything. They get the short end of the stick.''

Adults pay $54 for an appointment at Wakatipu Medical Centre and $59.50 at the larger Queenstown Medical Centre.

Dr Millar said GPs in Queenstown already struggled with high rents and difficulty in attracting and paying locums.

It was probably true that Queenstown was not strictly ''rural'' but it had other unusual features such as the distance to a base hospital and the large number of people who were not entitled to registration as patients but still required health care.

''The way it's been dealt with is that we've been able to be included in the rural basket which gives a lot of additional funding which allows us to keep prices down.

''I think if they do try and take it away there will be a big furore among the doctors here in town.''

Queenstown Medical Centre chief operating officer Shane Zeederberg said the six-figure sum received for rural funding was substantial to the business.

''We would have to have a serious look at what we provide and how we provide it.''

His impression was that the Wakatipu would not lose all of its rural funding.

''If it went to zero we would have to review the services we provide. We put a fair chunk of that into the A and E (accident and emergency) clinic which is open seven days week.''

Could fees change?

''Obviously we don't want to go there but it depends ... I'm hoping common sense will prevail.''

Mr Macara said there was a cap on charges based on historical charging rates but there was a fee review process practices could go through if they wished to increase their fees about a nationally-agreed percentage.

Any decisions made would be in the best interests of the patients, said Mr Macara, who is also a member of SHALT.

''The good news is the rural money we're getting (as Otago and Southland) is the same or likely to be more.''

''How it's going to be allocated into the future ... all the providers will be part of that decision making process,'' he said.

The Mirror