Advice about board should not have been secret

Jonathan Coleman.
Jonathan Coleman.
Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman should not have kept secret official advice about the pros and cons of sacking Southern District Health Board members, the Chief Ombudsman says.

In a letter to the Otago Daily Times, Judge Peter Boshier said he had formed the opinion that Dr Coleman should not have withheld the official information.

Dr Coleman had also withheld an admission that the board was "heavily reliant'' on consultants as it had lost so many finance staff. A sentence criticising DHB management was also redacted.

When the advice was requested a year ago, Dr Coleman's office claimed a right to "free and frank'' communication to withhold the sections, which Dr Coleman has now released.

In a section marked "benefits'' and "disadvantages'', officials advised that a commissioner could lack the "historical and institutional knowledge'' held by long-standing board members.

"DHB management and staff may have concerns regarding potential commissioner decisions e.g. restructuring,'' it says.

But on the plus side, a commissioner would be able to get more done.

"Having an independent commissioner would lessen potential parochial resistance to initiatives to achieve a more sustainable position for the Southern district as a whole (rather than split between Dunedin and Invercargill).''

Another advantage was that it would send a "clear signal'' to all DHBs regarding performance issues.

But the local community might be concerned about the "perceived reduction in local democracy''.

"It may be perceived as a means to cut southern health services without public accountability.''

The pros and cons advice was given when Dr Coleman was weighing his options. He proceeded to sack the board and appoint commissioner Kathy Grant.

The comments about consultants and management were in a paper briefing Dr Coleman for his first visit to Dunedin after installing Mrs Grant.

"Historically there has been a lack of operational capability by management to implement change while overseeing day-to-day business,'' it says.

Earlier this year, in a separate decision pertaining to the SDHB's refusal to release a draft work plan it had submitted to Dr Coleman, then ombudsman Prof Ron Paterson backed the board's right to secrecy.

"As the draft work plans are neither complete nor confirmed, they remain subject to internal discussion and amendment.'' Prof Paterson's decision in March said.

eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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