Questions remain on hospital rebuild

Almost seven months to the day since the signing of the coalition agreement, Health Minister Dr Shane Reti showed up to inspect the Dunedin hospital rebuild and supposedly offer some assurances about the government’s commitment to it.

This newspaper was not alone in repeatedly seeking a commitment from Dr Reti to the promise made last July on the campaign trail to restore some beds, operating theatres and the PET scanner, removed after a controversial re-design during Labour’s reign.

The price-tag on their reintroduction then was estimated at $29.5 million.

For months, questions to Dr Reti about this were batted away without the giving of straightforward answers.

This is an unfortunate pattern from the minister. We have seen it with the controversies over the roll-back of bold anti-smoking measures, and more recently the still-unresolved cancer drugs promise debacle.

Dr Reti is adept at making soothing noises without saying much meaningful or concrete.

It is a technique which might work well with anxious patients or the worried well, but it can be irritating in his current role and risks adding to confusion and uncertainty rather than allay any fears about the government’s plans.

That was the case last week in the health select committee scrutiny week session when the subject of the July promise arose and he referred to fulfilling the July promise as "still on the table for us".

Later, during his visit, asked to reaffirm the pre-election pledge Dr Reti said it continued to be what "we are anticipating delivering".

It is difficult to see, even given the length the project has to run, why Dr Reti could not be definite about this.

After last week’s visit and a meeting with Dr Reti, Dunedin’s deputy mayor Cherry Lucas said she was encouraged by commitments to the hospital project from the minister.

She said he had told her the government would deliver everything it promised — "beds, operating theatres and the PET scanner, which will be part of the fitout stage — and that he wants to see the new facility built ‘sooner rather than later’."

But there is still much uncertainty around parts of this project.

It is not clear what the government’s plans are for other controversial aspects of the increasingly expensive complex including the provision of pathology services, or the short-sighted decision to shelve the interprofessional learning centre which was supposed to be an integral part of the health precinct.

Last September, the Labour government had announced plans for a separate pathology building within 1km of the new hospital which was expected to cost about $45 million.

The interprofessional centre was to have been a collaboration between Te Whatu Ora/Health New Zealand, the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic.

Last year, former Dunedin-based National List MP Michael Woodhouse said the government could not avoid responsibility for this being put on ice, because they were the funders of the polytechnic and the university which were citing financial pressure for the shelving of the project.

The National-led government has not made any public announcements on a remedy.

Minister of Health, Dr Shane Reti. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Minister of Health, Dr Shane Reti. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
In recent weeks we have been hearing much from Dr Reti, Finance Minister Nicola Willis and Infrastructure Minister Chris Bishop about the need for value for money on such projects as if this is somehow a new concept.

Are we expected to believe that in the years of planning and horse trading which eventually led to the long overdue plans for the new Dunedin hospital complex, all eyes were firmly closed to that notion?

We hope we are not being prepared for more suggestions areas should be shelled — built but not fitted out immediately.

Cost saving in such a way seems dubious as the spaces will cost more to complete in the long run and in the meantime cannot be used, so patients miss out.

Without much more detail around the government’s plans, it is too soon to get starry-eyed about the government’s commitment to the whole complex.