Health boards look set to merge

One health board could govern Otago and Southland from as early as next year, with consultation to begin next month about the creation of a southern district health board.

A merger of the Otago and Southland district health boards would immediately save a minimum of $500,000, with savings of at least $1 million expected longer term as duplication of board and committee meetings was cut, ODHB chairman Errol Millar said last night.

The public had become "fairly used to" the combined approach of both boards, which now shared executive managers and other back office services, and he sensed there was a mood to just "get on with it".

"I would be surprised if they [the public] did not ultimately conclude it is the best way forward for both Otago and Southland," Mr Millar said.

"I would say I have heard more positive comments about getting on with it than negative."

Otago and Southland boards' chief executive Brian Rousseau said, in a press statement, "the future would look much more stable if the South had one district health board".

Merging the two boards would reduce bureaucracy and help retain hospital services which were regarded as financially and clinically marginal, he said.

The Southland and Otago boards discussed the proposal in secret at meetings this week and last, before deciding to consult with staff and the public about a merger.

Consultation is expected to last six weeks with the results to be presented to the boards in early 2010, when they would decide whether to ask the Minister of Health to combine the two boards.

Mr Millar said it was coincidental the proposal had arisen at the same time the boards had been deciding whether to have one primary health organisation across Otago and Southland.

It was announced on Thursday a single primary health organisation would be established in Otago and another one in Southland to replace the existing nine organisations.

"It just so happened they merged on the agenda at the same time. There is no grand plan."

Southland District Health Board chairman Paul Menzies said the two district health boards had been working closely for about four years and the relationship was getting even closer.

"Both Otago and Southland, by ourselves, are not sustainable, financially or clinically."

They were left with "stark choices" and could not afford to ignore the significant savings which could be made with a merger.

He had made no secret of his view that 21 district health boards were "somewhat over the top" for New Zealand, but there was no political pressure for the merger of the two boards to happen, he said.

Mr Millar said Health Minister Tony Ryall was aware of the proposal, but he had not discussed it with him personally.

Mr Ryall could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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