Breast-screening fears as standoff continues

The South's breast-screening service may come to a ''standstill'' because the Southern District Health Board is refusing to honour mammographers' redundancies, the Association of Professionals and Executive Employees (Apex) says.

The board is in a standoff with mammographers, who this week declined job offers with new provider Pacific Radiology Group because they will not receive redundancy if they accept.

PRG, which takes over the service on August 4, said yesterday it would bring mammographers south if necessary. However, the union said mammographers were in short supply, so that might not be easily done.

Apex spokesman Rhys Walters, of Auckland, said the issue was clear-cut and the health board was in breach of contract. It decided to exit a national screening contract, which was then awarded to another provider, and the board must pay out employees' entitlements. ''It is ridiculous. They are going to have to be working really hard to get something sorted out by [August 4].''

In one case, a mammographer was entitled to 93% of her annual salary in redundancy.

Mammographers were ''deeply frustrated'' by the situation, in which they felt caught between serving patients, and receiving their legal entitlement.

''They're mammographers ... What that means is they are actually a particular kind of person; they live for the patients, they take their role very seriously and personally.''

The mammographers, all but one of whom was in the union, were also not happy with some of the terms offered by PRG, and the parties were in talks over conditions.

''You can hardly blame them. The mammographers are being presented with an awful deal: either they sign with the new employer on diminished terms and lose their severance payments, or they stay on with the DHB with a rather grim and uncertain future.

''The DHB will at least, for a period, still be required to employ the Apex members, though what it will have them do is unknown. The whole thing is a shambles and the mammographers and the public they serve are stuck in the middle,'' Mr Walters said.

Complicating things was that the board was outsourcing the much smaller diagnostic breast-care service to PRG. The work for the two services was done by the same pool of 15 mammographers.

In a ''farcical'' move, the board said there were a small number of redeployments available, and had requested mammographers' CVs, but had not said what the jobs were. Redeployment was not straightforward for breast-screening mammographers as they were specialised and could need retraining if they joined a different service.

Public Service Association southern region organiser Julie Morton said her own clerical staff members had faced a similar dilemma over redundancy pay, but unlike mammographers, were not in a position to decline job offers.

The union this week lodged a formal dispute with the Southern District Health Board, requiring it to act in accordance with the employment agreement. The board was ''completely dysfunctional'' and had not taken basic steps necessary in the process. There were many unanswered questions and issues about which the union had not been able to obtain information.

PRG chief executive Dr Lance Lawler said he was an ''eternal optimist'' and believed the situation would be sorted. If not, PRG would have to bring staff to the South.

''We're hopeful that common sense will prevail, but ultimately if we don't have staff to run the programme, we'd have to do something. We're in the hot seat now.''

The union's dispute with the board was over money, he said, adding the mammographers had misinterpreted a condition in PRG's offer they objected to.

Health board patient services director Lexie O'Shea said in a statement the board was ''committed to ensuring'' the service was provided beyond August 4, and would work with the parties.

Mrs O'Shea said the board was working through the redundancy pay issue with workers' representatives.

''We are confident that the service change will be seamless for women and are putting a great deal of work into overcoming any obstacles to ensure that this happens.'' 


Mammograms
• Screening provided to women aged 45-69 under contract with National Screening Unit.
• Mammographers produce images of the body using radiation, ultrasound or magnetic fields, to help doctors provide diagnosis and treatment.
• Service caters for about 18,000 women in Otago and Southland.
• Smaller diagnostic breast-care service also affected.


- eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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