Proposal hard to stomach

The latest details of the proposal to outsource Dunedin and Invercargill hospital food services leave a bad taste in the mouth for southerners.

The outsourcing was first proposed two years ago as part of a ''national food service'', driven by Health Benefits Ltd, the Government's health cost-cutting entity.

HBL pushed the NZ arm of Compass Group, an international food and support services company, as its preferred provider for the service.

Until now, the planned production location for the southern hospital meals - those for inpatients as well as meals on wheels - was unclear.

It has now been revealed the proposal is for meals on wheels to be made in Auckland, frozen and trucked south to be reheated in local hospital kitchens.

Food for patients would come as pre-prepared ''components'' from around the country - including Auckland, Tauranga, Mt Maunganui and Dunedin - to be assembled and reheated in the South.

At face value, it feels like the latest kick in the guts to southern towns and cities reeling in the wake of other job and industry losses to the mantra of ''centralisation'', not to mention illogical given the sheer distance and the various issues arising from that.

However, the proposal is just that at this stage.

The health board has deferred the date for its decision to May, allowing the Service and Food Workers Union and others time to develop a counterproposal and provide other cost-cutting suggestions.

For, unsavoury as it may be, cost is the nub of the matter.

There can be few people unaware of the pressures on the health dollar.

The Compass Group says it can save the board $7 million over a 15-year contract.

The public is being asked to trust the savings are genuine.

But trust is in short supply.

There is - rightly - a healthy amount of scepticism about the reality of ''savings'', the transparency of procedures, not to mention the flow-on effects and local impact of health proposals.

Much of that scepticism comes from recent events.

There has been controversy over the sums Health Benefits Ltd actually managed to ''save'', and what it in fact cost taxpayers.

In the wake of that, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman announced last year HBL would be wound up by the middle of this year and responsibility for cost-cutting would switch to health boards.

With the demise of HBL, the idea of the national food service provided by Compass has been shelved.

Some district health boards are still considering the Compass proposals; others are adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Unions representing southern workers have complained about the lack of transparency around the proposal, and the lack of detail provided.

How many other proposals and providers were considered at the beginning?

Is there really no viable local solution?In recent months and years, the faith of southerners has been tested in the wake of a raft of local health issues.

With each southern service that is lost, reduced or centralised, the flow-on effect becomes more of a torrent.

And what about hidden costs?

Those associated with distribution and transportation because of unforeseen weather, further Cook Strait ferry issues, or civil defence emergencies?

There will be no immediate job losses as workers will transfer to Compass under the same terms.

The board's consultation document says Compass is likely to need fewer staff, but will only know how many after reviewing the service.

Certainly it seems inevitable fewer workers will be required if they are only heating and assembling meals.

There are many questions.

Can North Island workers produce cheaper meals?

If they can only do so by making them pre-prepared ones, or components, why not do that here and keep the local workforce? What about the meals themselves?

What about their nutritional value?

What are the provisions for those with special dietary requirements?

To be fair, a great range of goods are trucked to the South each and every day.

But it sometimes feels the powers that be seem to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

The devil is still in the detail and there is much left unanswered.

In the interim, it is to be hoped other counterproposals may offer a more palatable solution, which can retain jobs and services locally.

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