More pain for the chronically ill

A rise in prescription charges at pharmacies will hit Canterbury's "most vulnerable people", health professionals say.

Prime Minister John Key announced yesterday a $101 million health funding boost in the upcoming Budget, with an emphasis on hospital services such as cancer treatment and elective surgery.

Prescription charges will increase from $3 an item to $5 as the Government moves to offset the cost of extra health spending in the "zero Budget".

The new charge will cover up to a maximum of 20 items from January 1 next year, raising $20m in the first year and $40m after that.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the money raised from the new charge would be reinvested in the health sector. "Despite tight financial times and what will be a zero Budget on May 24, health will receive a big funding boost, which will come from savings within health and across the Government's accounts," he said.

Canterbury District Health Board member Andrew Dickerson welcomed the extra funding, but said it was focused too much on hospital services.

"I don't have a sense that the Government has grasped the fact that the largest gains in improving the health status of our community are likely to come from improving access to primary [GP] health care," he said.

Dickerson said the rise in prescription costs would affect people with chronic conditions.

"If you are on a low income and have a chronic health condition requiring many different medications, then this increase will certainly have an adverse impact."

Chris Mene, a health board member and chairman of the Shirley-Papanui Community Board, said the increase in prescription charges would "be a burden on our most vulnerable people".

The focus for Christchurch had to be on "population health", he said.

Pegasus Health senior clinical leader Simon Wynn-Thomas said funding that was "diverted specifically to the community", rather than to hospitals, would provide better care. The Health Ministry's Better Sooner More Convenient health policy means more health services are being provided in the community, such as GPs or counsellors.

"It would have been good to see some of the funding also diverted specifically to the community to fund the increasing work that is being conducted," Wynn-Thomas said.

Canterbury's share of the funding is unknown.

The board has been struggling with surgical capacity because of earthquake damage and has spent millions outsourcing elective surgery to Christchurch's private hospitals.

Last month, the board said the private sector was pushed to capacity. It is not known how Canterbury would deliver more elective surgery without increased capacity.

The health board did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Bitter pill or remedy?

In the announcement, Prime Minister John Key and Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Budget would fund four new initiatives:

$48 million to increase elective operations by at least 4000 each year nationwide.

$16m on information technology systems to speed up access to diagnostic tests.

$4m for a national register of patients treated for heart conditions to improve the quality of care across hospitals.

$33m over the next four years for better and faster services, including dedicated nurses, for cancer patients.

The Press