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An Australian-owned health provider hopes to take over the Dunedin-based National Poisons Centre under the merger being pushed by the Ministry of Health.
Yesterday, the Wellington-based general manager of Medibank Health Solutions New Zealand said it was too soon to say whether poisons would be separate from other helplines if Medibank gets the contract.
It comes as Dunedin North Labour MP Dr David Clark has launched a petition to save the national service provided in Dunedin for nearly 50 years.
Medibank Health Solutions' New Zealand-operated Healthline is one of seven the Ministry of Health wants to merge into a mega phone service. The ministry wants affected groups to agree how to run the service with a lead supplier, and Medibank is in talks with the other groups in the hope of leading the service.
The Dunedin-based National Poisons Centre, which is run by the University of Otago at a reportedly significant financial shortfall, wants to remain a stand-alone specialist service. It argues it is not just a crisis line, but provides advice to the highest levels of government, and maintains a comprehensive poison database.
Medibank Health Solutions NZ general manager Andrea Pettett, when contacted, said the proposal was a ''fantastic'' opportunity for Medibank, which has provided Healthline for 14 years.
Ms Pettett could not guarantee anything about how the service would be provided, and where staff would be based, should Medibank be successful.
''Our conversations with the other 0800 providers are commercially sensitive.''
Its Australian ownership, and the fact its three directors were all based across the Tasman, should make no difference to Medibank gaining the contract, or to public feeling about the service.
''Why does that make a difference?'' she said.
Ms Pettett acknowledged figures published in an Otago Daily Times opinion piece penned by Dr Clark showing Otago University subsidised the service to the tune of $1.3 million annually.
''Nobody's for loss, and if indeed the University of Otago has been subsidising poisons line, then clearly that's going to be a conversation that we're going to [have to have],'' Ms Pettett said.
It was too early to say whether poisons would remain a separate phone line, or if calls would be mixed in with other queries, which include gambling, depression, and immunisation queries.
''All possibilities are still on the table. We haven't really got our thinking in any particular direction yet.''
National Poisons Centre director Dr Wayne Temple said the centre was still puzzled as to why poisons had been ''lumped in'' with less urgent health needs. Dr Temple did not want to see poison calls triaged by a generic health helpline, as it would cause delays.
In a press release to highlight his online petition, Dr Clark said the poison line should not have been included in the merger.
''Having a poison crisis line answered by generic 0800 health service operators is against world best practice and could cost lives.
''No-one is against making savings when there is merit in doing so, but it makes no sense when that comes at a cost to the quality of service,'' Dr Clark said.