Driver says contract not explained

A meals on wheels driver who vowed to quit if hospital kitchens were outsourced has changed his mind before the final decision on the controversial 15-year deal with a multinational corporation.

The unexpected backlash from some drivers was seen as a potential risk to the Southern District Health Board proposal, which is likely to be approved at a meeting in Dunedin tomorrow.

Dr Terry Hearn said he had learned the proposed agreement with the Compass Group did not include responsibility for delivering meals, and he would continue to volunteer.

He had been under the false impression that by volunteering, he could be giving time and vehicle expenses to help the corporation.

He blamed the board for not communicating properly.

''If my understanding is correct, namely, that the proposed contract never included distribution within Dunedin, then the question that bothers me is why did the board not engage with its volunteer drivers ... and make that plain?

''Did the objections raised cause a rethink of the proposed contract?''

In an opinion piece in the Otago Daily Times yesterday, board member Richard Thomson warned about an unintended consequence of a volunteer backlash - Compass could gain financially if it was also asked to deliver the meals.

The proposal is unpopular with the public, and campaigners will present a petition to board members at the meeting.

Meals on wheels will be trucked to the South from Auckland, while patient meals will be assembled using pre-prepared food distributed around New Zealand in trucks.

Board chairman Joe Butterfield yesterday acknowledged communication with the public could have been better.

The contract was negotiated on a national level, which had given the board less control over how it was handled, he said.

Conceived by the soon-to-be-disbanded Health Benefits Ltd, the proposal was part of a nationwide push to outsource food services to Compass.

Some health boards have rejected the idea, and the fewer boards that enter the contract, the lower the projected savings over 15 years.

Last week the ODT revealed HBL spent $4.1 million of public money on the ''business case'' for the food proposal, $1 million more than was budgeted.

The Auckland-based organisation blamed delays and information requests for causing the blowout.

At the meeting, the board will hear a final plea from the Service and Food Workers' Union, which has put forward a counterproposal.

The union has threatened legal action if the move goes ahead, saying the board might not have complied with legislation protecting vulnerable workers.

Kitchen staff have waited more than two years to learn their fate, and face a further period of uncertainty, because Compass would conduct a review before putting up to a fifth of them out of work.

The decision will be made behind closed doors, once the public and the media are told to leave the meeting.

The board approved the outsourcing in principle last December, and was scheduled to make a final decision in April, but delayed it by a month at the request of affected unions.

Dunedin Hospital's kitchen was upgraded in 2008, at a cost of nearly $1 million. More recently, $350,000 was spent on an electronic food system, which will be scrapped if the service is outsourced.

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