Overcrowded ‘code red’ hospitals, but Little says healthcare system ‘managing’

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Health Minister Andrew Little said that despite pressure on some hospitals, the health system “as a whole is coping”.

Few comments were made in response to the revelation of a letter written a year ago by the country’s 20 District Health Boards (DHBs) warning the government of “critical manpower problems”, the calling it an “unsustainable situation” with some hospitals overloaded with “code red”. “.

Since then, healthcare worker shortages have only worsened, with unions saying the country is short of 4,000 nurses as the healthcare system groans amid the ‘twin outbreak’ of Covid-19 and flu as winter bites.

On July 28 last year, Hawkes Bay DHB chief executive Keriana Brooking, representing the 20 DHBs, wrote that they “are experiencing significant challenges in maintaining safe service levels which are exacerbated by the issues of labor supply”.

“Most importantly, this includes the risk that existing overseas-trained employees will leave due to an inability to secure their future as New Zealand residents,” says the letter, addressed to Carolyn Tremain, Director General of the Ministry of Innovation and Employment, and responsible for emigration.

The letter was also addressed to the Acting Deputy Director General of Health Workforce, Amy Wilson, at the Department of Health.

National Health Party spokesman Dr Shane Reti revealed the letter to Parliament yesterday, obtained under the Official Information Act.

Little said, however, he only saw the letter “a few months ago” when the OIA request came through.

When asked if he should have received the letter, Little replied that it was about “problems they had with MIQ” and was therefore directed to MBIE.

“Shane is very good at making these kind of John le Carré escapades for things that don’t exist.

“It wasn’t an overriding issue about manpower, it was about the efforts DHBs had to put in, to recruit to fill the vacancies they had.”

Few said although he had not seen the letter, he had regular fortnightly telephone contact with the DHB presidents.

Since these issues were raised, Little said work has been done to ensure there are 300 places per month reserved at the MIQ for health workers.

He said the current issues were “unrelated” to the issues raised in the letter.

He disputed claims that the labor shortage had worsened, saying there had been a lot of work around recruitment.

“But internationally it’s incredibly competitive. We’re lining up with just about every other country to find who we can to work in our healthcare system.”

Current pressures have been exacerbated by staff falling ill, he said.

“They’ve had levels of staff absenteeism they’ve never seen before. One hospital told me 15% one day last week.

“It compounds the problem with the vacancies we have had.

“But when on top of that you have Covid, the spike in flu infections…it all escalated to put real pressure over the past few weeks on a hospital system.”

Overall, Little said he’s “satisfied” the system is working out.

“There are individual hospitals that are doing it very hard, like Capital and Coast, Middlemore continues to be under pressure, Bay of Plenty has been under pressure.

“So there are hospitals that are really feeling it. But the system as a whole is managing.”

In its July 2021 letter, Brooking said hospitals were also experiencing “very high levels of occupancy at this time and some sites are even in ‘code red’ where they are deemed to be at extreme levels.”

“This is obviously an unsustainable situation and puts even more pressure on our existing workforce.”

“This will have long-term impacts on the health and well-being of New Zealanders.”

DHB chiefs have called for current overseas trained staff to be given a ‘direct and expeditious pathway to residency’ and for overseas healthcare professionals to be facilitated to enter New Zealand as required to ‘avoid a crisis in the health sector”.

This letter was written ahead of some major changes in immigration contexts, including the single residency process that is expected to help around 170,000 people.

In May, the government also announced a fast-track residency process whereby some healthcare workers could get residency immediately, but nurses were left out, having to wait two years.

Reti said if Little didn’t know about last year’s letter “he should have”.

Today, Reti also revealed through Parliamentary Written Questions (WPQ) that the Department of Health has hired nearly 1,000 new consultants in 11 months, with 1,359 in total.

“Our hospitals are at breaking point,” Reti said.

“We are desperately short of 4,000 nurses and the government has hired 1,000 consultants to support their faltering health restructuring.”

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