Ophthalmologist at odds with HNZ over public funding

"It just stuns me" ... Opthamologist Dr Dean Corbett, of Auckland. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
"It just stuns me" ... Opthamologist Dr Dean Corbett, of Auckland. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
An Auckland ophthalmologist says Health New Zealand Te Whatu Ora (HNZ) Southern’s decision to withdraw public funding which enabled some ophthalmology services to be performed in Queenstown is "beyond ridiculous".

But Health NZ says it did not withdraw its funding — it was looking at how it will provide the care in Otago in the future.

Dr Dean Corbett, a consultant and surgeon at Auckland Eye, also established Southern Lakes Eye Care and Surgery in association with Southern Cross, providing private consultations and surgery.

He told the Otago Daily Times Dr John Bowbyes had been providing consultant and medical retinal care to public patients in Queenstown, under a funding arrangement with HNZ.

When he retired in December, Dr Corbett said he offered to fill the breach, under the same arrangement, despite the additional costs for his colleagues who had to fly south from Auckland and stay a couple of nights each time.

He asked if there was "any room for additional funding" and was told there was not.

He said he confirmed with HNZ his team was still prepared to take on the service at the previous funding level.

"They just came back and said, ‘we’ve decided not to provide any funding’."

That meant Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago patients who had macular degeneration and needed regular intra-ocular injections — required every three months to a year — now had to travel to either Invercargill or Dunedin for public treatment.

"That road down to Invercargill’s not a great road for people who can’t see," Dr Corbett said.

"It’s just the most bizarre thing. You’ve got an opportunity to provide the service much more local, that somebody can’t see that. It just stuns me."

Dr Corbett said the "postcode lottery" experienced in the southern region, and the inequity of access to services, including ophthalmology, was one of the drivers of a "compassionate" surgery he would perform in Queenstown on Monday.

There was an application system at his Auckland practice where GPs could request cost-only surgery for certain patients.

He was aware Southern Cross Central Lakes Hospital was performing some compassionate procedures, and when he realised a Queenstown patient would qualify, he contacted general manager Tim Capill to see if it would be possible.

"This is a patient who is nearly blind, needs his [eye] pressure reduced, he’s intolerant of medications, he and his wife are both elderly [and] they’ve got no money."

Dr Corbett said his patient was initially referred to Invercargill, but it would require the couple to drive there and back in the dark in winter.

They ultimately asked him to perform the surgery in Queenstown, despite the cost.

"That’s when it dawned on me. I thought ‘oh my God, I can probably organise this’."

The hospital’s board agreed to reduce fees to a cost-only basis, Dr Corbett would perform the surgery at no cost, and the surgical device required would be provided for free.

"The procedure would otherwise cost about $6000 and we’re able to do it for about $1400.

"For every action there are reactions ... I’m happy to do this, from time to time, for the right people."

Health NZ southern operations group director Hamish Brown said it had not withdrawn any funding of this service but was looking at how it will provide future care in Otago.

During the Covid-19 initial lockdowns an ophthalmologist was contracted to provide care to patients who were unable to travel outside of Central Otago and Lakes during that time.

A selection of patients continued to be seen past the Covid-19 response, he said.

When the ophthalmologist retired the patients under his care were contacted and they are now cared for by a mixture of providers and Health NZ.