Dental check-up for gift horses

Two funding announcements last week have not been greeted with the universal acclaim the government might have hoped for.

Although both measures are yet to be realised, some are already ignoring the old adage "never look a gift horse in the mouth".

There are already questions about the effectiveness and adequacy of both the boost to the level of support available to those who have to travel away from home for medical treatment, and the early childhood education rebate.

Otago and Southland patients have traditionally been big users of the National Travel Assistance (NTA) scheme, introduced in 2005 to provide some help with the travel and accommodation costs.

It was never designed to pay the full costs, but for years there have been concerns the support was difficult to access and that it was far too low, resulting in some patients deciding not to have medical treatments.

The $18 million boost to annual spending on the NTA, which has been between $33m and $35m, sounds impressive.

However, the mileage rate (not changed since 2009) has gone up from 28c to 34c a kilometre, a rate which still seems meagre when it is considered the current Inland Revenue Department rate for the first 14,000km for businesses is 95c per kilometre.

Patient advocates are already asking how the new figure was calculated.

The nightly accommodation rate will increase from $100 to $140 and the rate for those staying with friends and whanau has risen $10 to $35 a night.

Health Minister Shane Reti expects 4500 people to benefit from the changes which will also include offering pre-payment rather than retrospective claiming and the ability to do more online.

Shane Reti. Photo: The New Zealand Herald
Shane Reti. Photo: The New Zealand Herald
He describes the changes, some of which will be introduced from today, as "an incremental increase towards a time when we can progress further".

We trust that if the planned better promotion of the scheme results in a budget blowout there will not be a repeat of the recent disability funding debacle.

There should be no such problem with National’s Family Boost scheme to refund up to $75 of a family’s childcare costs for those earning up to $180,000 a year, after the 20 hours free funding and the Ministry of Social Development childcare subsidy are taken into account.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis said the policy, under which the first payments will be made in October, has been costed on a 100% uptake for the estimated 100,000 families who will qualify for some rebate.

This seems hopeful, given the Regulatory Impact Statement considered some parents would be put off from claiming because they must present online invoices three-monthly to the IRD.

Ms Willis would have preferred to put money into families’ bank accounts fortnightly, but the information technology systems did not allow this.

Payments will rely on the most recent information IRD has on family income. They will be "full and final" with no tax bills or "square ups" at the end of the tax year, according to the information released by Ms Willis.

Hopefully, that does not mean if there are mistakes made disadvantaging families, they will have no opportunity to address them with IRD.

Fears the rebate might lead to ECE providers lifting their fees have again been dismissed by Ms Willis and the Prime Minister. They reckon families will vote with their feet, and competition will save the day.

As we have said before, this argument overlooks the fact there might not always be other places for those families to go. It also suggests making ECE arrangements is on a par with finding the best deal at a supermarket.

At best, this move can be seen as tinkering. It remains to be seen if the government will be bold enough to address the big questions in the sector about whether better controls are needed to ensure profits do not come at the expense of quality services, equitable access and good pay and conditions for staff.