Laboratory service a ‘cash cow’ — scientist

A scientist has blasted a laboratory service underpinning the health system as becoming a "cash cow" while staff and patients suffer.

Medical laboratory scientist Elaine Booker resigned from her Southland Hospital-based job with Awanui Labs, warning of burned-out workers in an open letter calling for profits to be reinvested into the health sector.

Awanui Labs said while business in the private sector should be profitable, it was there to meet healthcare needs.

The tension comes as the Apex union, representing laboratory workers, is in a standoff with Awanui Labs in a push for higher pay in its new collective agreement.

Ms Booker said it was a job people got into because they wanted to help others, but many were deciding conditions were no longer worth it.

"All we are doing is making huge profits for greedy shareholders.

We have become cash cows and not only us, but the patients are suffering."

The service to patients was constantly downgraded, and patient samples had increased 30% post-Covid, she said.

Workers were exhausted from long, late hours, staff shortages, poor equipment and a lack of management support.

It was also demanding work.

"I don’t want to be the first person to know you’re dying of leukaemia ... I don’t want to cut up babies and dispose of thumbs, when for a small pay cut, I could make coffee."

To leave after 18 years in the job felt like a travesty, but it was not viable work when increases in minimum wage were not matched by pay increases.

New graduates could earn more in unskilled jobs, while senior staff earned about the same as meat packers.

Government-owned laboratories would be able to reinvest profit back into the health sector, she said.

"If I was the health minister, I would cancel every single private laboratory contract."

Other suggestions included pay increases, merit steps and regulations to benefit workers.

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall would not comment on the letter.

Her office said it would be inappropriate as industrial action continued.

The financial statements of holding company NZ Healthcare Investments Limited in December show a $40.4million profit in 2021, and $13.1m profit in 2022.

Its two biggest shareholders were the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan.

Awanui Labs did not comment on its present financial situation, but last month told the Otago Daily Times high inflation was challenging in meeting operational and business costs.

South Island general manager Andrea Guillemot said earlier this week that employee wellbeing was critical and there were support services within the organisation for those in need.

"We do acknowledge our people and many others in the healthcare sector right now are under pressure in their working environments."

Awanui Labs was meeting its key performance indicators, and continued to offer high-quality pathology testing services, she said.

"While every business in the private sector should be profitable and sustainable, we are ultimately here for our patients and meeting the needs of Aotearoa New Zealand’s healthcare service.

"This can be demonstrated by the significant investment we have made in new testing equipment, IT capability, cyber security, workforce training and a connected national service."