Health unrest making itself felt

As Budget day dawns and the winter illness season ramps up, unrest by workers in the country’s stretched health services is making itself felt.

Today, the third junior doctors’ strike this month kicks off, and NZ Blood Service workers will be off the job for half of the day tomorrow (followed by a 24-hour strike on June 4).

Health New Zealand Te Whatu Ora (HNZ) has said there will be significant disruption to some healthcare as a result of these actions.

Elective surgery is one area which will be affected, although the extent of that is not yet clear.

Both sets of workers will have procedures in place to maintain emergency and life-preserving services as required by law.

The blood service workers are seeking pay parity with colleagues at HNZ, who are being paid 13-35% more, according to the Public Service Association (PSA).

It says after seven months of talks, there has still been no pay offer.

The resident doctors’ dispute has also dragged on, and while under the current pay offer some would receive up to 25% salary increases, this would not apply to all.

Concerns about doctors working 15-hour shifts back to back have also been cited.

Hato Hone St John workers are also threatening industrial action over their pay, after six months of pay talks have reached a stalemate.

Maybe St John’s leadership is waiting for the outcome of the Budget, to see if it will feature the commitment in the National Party’s agreement with New Zealand First to renegotiate their Crown funding agreement to provide a greater portion of the service’s annual budget.

Striking Dunedin doctors earlier this month. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Striking Dunedin doctors earlier this month. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
This week, our biggest nurses’ union, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, has compiled a 162-page booklet for HNZ from a survey of its members responding to the controversial mid-April directive for $105 million in savings by July 1.

More than 900 nurses responded to the survey about calls from HNZ, which included stopping double shifts, ensuring meal breaks are taken, encouraging the taking of annual leave, limiting the replacement of sick staff and consideration of permanent removal of unfilled roles.

The approach taken by HNZ to find $107m in savings has been clumsy and unnecessarily confrontational to workers, not just in nursing.

It will be no surprise to anyone who has been vaguely paying attention to the issues in the health system, that the nurses responding to the survey were overwhelmingly unimpressed.

They took issue with any sug-gestion that the cost-cutting would not affect the level of patient care, saying the cuts would add to what was already a difficult working environment with ongoing chronic understaffing.

As we have said before, despite the good news that workforce data for the last calendar year showed a net extra 2493 full-time-equivalent nursing roles, we are a long way from having the number of nurses we need.

Last year more than a quarter of nursing shifts were below target staffing numbers, and some wards operated below safe staffing levels nearly all the time.

It is hard to see, even with extra staff, that implementing cost-cutting measures as proposed by HNZ will help that issue.

There will be high hopes from patients accessing, or attempting to access, all parts of our health system, that whatever Vote Health brings will result in major improvements across the board.

How realistic some of those hopes might be is questionable, given the myriad issues faced, including the ongoing postcode lottery for cancer and some other treatments, short staffing in almost every area, the crisis in primary-care provision, years of under-investment in buildings and equipment, and clamour for more spending on medicines.

It will be disappointing, however, if the funding does not allow for some of the protracted negotiations over pay and conditions in essential parts of the system to be sorted out without further disruption to patients.