Hospital kitchen plans not known

Schemes to enhance hospital kitchen throughput were put on hold to make way for the ''big grand scheme'' of centralised food production, but no-one quite knows when it will take shape, the Service and Food Workers Union says.

District health boards are still awaiting a business case from the Government-owned entity that devised the scheme, revealed last April, which is designed to save more than $10 million a year.

It involved possibly setting up mega kitchens in Christchurch and Auckland, but details have not been confirmed.

Some meal preparation would still take place locally.

A business case was now expected around April, SFWU national secretary John Ryall said yesterday.

However, his ''gut feeling'' was that the controversial plan was quietly on hold, at least until after the general election.

Food efficiency schemes under way in New Zealand hospitals were put on hold by health boards to await Health Benefits Ltd's ''big grand scheme'', which meant lost opportunities to find savings, he said.

SFWU Dunedin Hospital kitchen delegate Cathryn Herd said workers were told recently by the health board they might know more about the process by the middle of the year.

''They keep saying to us `when we hear something, we'll come and tell you'.''

She understood any job losses would be minimal, which helped keep workers' spirits up.

''We just keep plugging along as we are,'' Mrs Herd said.

The Southern District Health Board refers queries about the process to Health Benefits Ltd (HBL).

For months, the Otago Daily Times has sought correspondence between the board and HBL under the Official Information Act.

In September, the board advised the correspondence, spanning seven months, would cost $9044 to collate.

Following advice from the Office of the Ombudsman, the request was narrowed to correspondence between HBL and board chief executive Carole Heatly.

Last week, the board said it was withholding information because of commercial sensitivity and to allow free and frank expression between officials, apart from three documents unrelated to the hospital kitchen plan.

Asked if he was concerned about the delay, Health Minister Tony Ryall said through a spokesman: ''I am advised HBL is still discussing the business case with unions, DHBs and a panel of expert nutritionists.''

''The top priority in the proposal is to improve food quality. Nothing will happen unless improving the quality of food and good nutrition can be assured.''

HBL communications manager Mark Reynolds said the next step was to present a business case to HBL's own board, which was ''still planned for early this year'', after which it would be released to health board chief executives.

''Any speculation on the content or outcome of that is not useful.''

eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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