An unhealthy exception

NZ First leader Winston Peters has raised reasonable questions about the public funding of Maori healing. His focus is on accountability and efficacy. How many patients have been treated by these healers (or rongoa) and what have been the outcomes?

The Government has been gliding over those issues in recent years. Fairfax newspapers reported in 2009 that Maori traditional healers were being funded by the Ministry of Health at a cost of $1.9 million a year. They are the only alternative-treatment providers directly receiving public health funding.

The ministry had inherited 14 contracts for rongoa practitioners from the former regional health authorities. Teresa Wall, deputy director-general Maori health, explained that traditional Maori healing could not be viewed from a Western medicine perspective. "The mere fact that people use rongoa and go back to the practitioners is testament that the services they are given are contributing to their wellbeing," she said.

But homoeopathists, colour therapists and an array of other -pists make similar claims. Their patients keep coming back. Therefore they are delivering the goods.

On accountability, Ms Wall said healers must report to the ministry quarterly and submit annual reports, but the practitioners and the health outcomes were not reviewed. "It's not unusual to fund on outputs," she said. "It's extraordinarily difficult to report on outcomes."

Mr Peters nevertheless is complaining that information he obtained from Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia "reveals a glaring lack of transparency over funding for the Rongoa Maori traditional healing service". The Health Ministry doesn't know how many individual patients are cared for by the 15 publicly funded Rongoa Maori service providers (although 57,000 "client contacts" were made in the four years from 2007-08 to 2010-11) and it has no data on success rates.

Mr Peters does not question the importance of keeping traditional Maori healing alive. He does ask whether this should be at the expense of proven, effective modern medicine known to help and save lives. Clearly, it should not. Even more clearly, an exemption for rongoa invites complaints of discrimination from other "alternative" health providers.