Helpline provision causes concern

Negotiations determining the fate of the Dunedin-based National Poisons Centre are not transparent, and may result in a significantly downgraded service presented as a fait accompli, Dunedin North MP Dr David Clark says.

Dr Clark was ''uncomfortable'' with the process to determine the provider of a new mega helpline, which he said looked set to favour Australian-owned provider Medibank Health Solutions New Zealand.

The Ministry of Health is combining seven helplines into one, and switched from a regular tender process to one that involves working with would-be providers behind closed doors. The National Poisons Centre is included in the proposal, despite its argument it should remain a stand-alone service because of its unique role.

''It makes me uncomfortable, and should make taxpayers wary of the process, especially when it appears [the Ministry of Health is] not acting in New Zealand's best interest overall.

''My understanding is that Medibank will only take the [calls] they want, and then they will refer the hard ones on to the poisons centre.

''Medibank has indicated to existing providers that it intends to cherry-pick the easy helpline calls and refer the more difficult calls - or those from paramedics, ambulance officers and emergency departments - on to the National Poisons Centre.''

Dr Clark said this would leave the University of Otago supporting the poisons centre's database without adequate funding.

''If the database is not maintained to its present standard, it will become an unviable proposition.

''Otago University currently provides a heavy subsidy to the National Poisons Centre. It is hard to imagine them carrying more cost to support a lower quality model with the risks that represents.''

Medibank general manager Andrea Pettett said when contacted she could not comment because of the negotiations.

''I would like to, but I can't,'' she said.

National Poisons Centre director Dr Wayne Temple said he could not comment at this stage.

Asked for an update on the process, a Ministry of Health spokesman said the ministry could not comment during the procurement process, as it could compromise commercial negotiations.

The new helpline is to start in the middle of next year.

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