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Opinion: Health minister out of touch?

Newstalk ZB host Rachel Smalley questions whether Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is ‘out of touch’ following attempts to talk to him about overcrowding problems at Waikato Hospital.

I asked Health Minister Jonathan Coleman to come on the programme this morning to respond to some of the failings of Waikato Hospital; if you tuned in yesterday, you would have heard an interview with the Waikato DHB.

The DHB was damning of the health minister and said Waikato Hospital had a funding shortfall to the tune of $32.5 million, and it was a life-threatening situation.

And the DHB described a culture of spin coming from the ministry and the minister, and said everyone was under pressure to talk positively about a situation that was anything but. That pressure, the DHB said, comes from the top.

So we spent much of yesterday requesting an interview with Jonathan Coleman.
What did he make of these criticisms? He was entitled to a right of reply and we offered that to him. In the end, a text came back from his press team. It said, “Thanks, but we’re declining.”

That’s the response from your health minister. He’s paid by you, the taxpayer to serve the public, but he won’t front on this issue. Again, the arrogance of the minister is blindsiding.

Through the course of the day, a number of you got in touch with me. Here’s an example of some of the emails:

“A member of my family was a specialist at Waikato. He said the situation is dire and people are lucky to come out alive. He was constantly worried that someone would die on his watch. It was, he said, a nightmare.”

This is the hospital that earlier in the year was forced to treat people outside in ambulances because there were no beds.

Yesterday, another tragic story. A baby who died at Waikato after the mother’s caesarean section was bumped. There was only one theatre and an acute case took priority. And on Tuesday, you may remember, Waikato Hospital was forced to again cancel all elective surgery.

And yet the minister won’t talk about this. It’s one week out from an election, health is polling as the single biggest issue for New Zealanders, and all Jonathan Coleman will say about Waikato is “The key thing is, the hospital is coping”.

It’s remarkable when you consider the latest poll. Last night, the Colmar Brunton poll has Labour ahead and, with the Greens, they can form a government. No need for Winston.

And National, with New Zealand First, the Māori Party and ACT, still can’t get there.

The Government can’t afford this level of arrogance.

Coleman is out of touch, and remember this is the man who challenged Bill English for the leadership when John Key resigned. And here he is refusing to front when there is a clear mood for change in this country.

There are many reasons why Waikato is struggling and make no mistake the DHB is accountable too. Have they got the spend ‘right’?

But if you’re the minister and a hospital is overflowing, and a baby has died, then it is inexcusable to bury your head and get your press secretary to send a text that says “Thanks, but we’re declining”.

The minister hits the ‘mute’ button.

EARLIER SEPT 14 OPINION:

Rachel Smalley: Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is out of touch

What is your number one concern ahead of the election? Well, according to the latest Newshub-Reid Research poll, it’s health.

And so it should be. Yes, housing and immigration are big issues too – but if you don’t have your health, what do you have?

In the past 24 hours, health has come catapulting up the news agenda.

First, the concerns raised by Jacinda Ardern.

Her 85-year-old grandfather was in Waikato Hospital, which is full to bursting. And so at 11.30 on Tuesday night the hospital attempted to discharge him.

It’s not the fault of the staff, said Ardern – nor is this issue about her – but it’s indicative of the state of our health system. It’s not fit for purpose.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, predictably, turned on Ardern.

He said it was “edgy” for Ardern to politicise her grandfather’s situation. And that, in one sentence, showed the remarkable arrogance of the man.

This is why Coleman is accused by some within the sector of being incredibly disconnected from the health system. He’s the king of spin, and as he showed here, he’s an expert at playing the man, and not the ball.

Address the issue, Minister Coleman. Our health system is under enormous strain.

On Tuesday, Waikato Hospital was forced to put a message up on Facebook saying all elective surgery had been cancelled. The whole lot.

They were overloaded. They could only deal with emergencies, they said. And even then, you should expect to wait.

And what did Coleman say? This floored me, actually. He said: “The key thing is, the hospital is able to cope.” Cope with what exactly, Minister?

He should pay a visit to Waikato Hospital. Go and talk to the fraught staff there, go and see those overflowing wards, and the challenges those incredibly hard-working staff are facing.

And it’s the same across the country. Find me a DHB that says they don’t have funding issues. Find me a DHB that says they’re not understaffed or overworked. And there is no risk to the health of the public because they’re meeting every patient’s needs. You won’t find one. Not one.

And you’ve got to look at why our health system is buckling under the strain.

Look at what they’re dealing with. Record high immigration, the obesity epidemic and all the health challenges that brings, child poverty and the record number of infants and children being admitted to our hospitals, and an ageing population.

There are so many reasons there is such a huge demand on our hospitals. And those hospitals are not funded to meet the needs of the public.

That Coleman can stare down a TV camera and say, “The key thing is the hospital is coping” shows just how removed he is from the coalface of our health system.

Overnight, a lot of people have contacted us with some pretty distressing stories about what they’ve endured in our health system.

I won’t go into them here, but another story broke overnight of a baby dying at Waikato Hospital because the mother was bumped from her elective caesarean at least once, because an emergency C-section took priority.

Doctors at Waikato had warned managers that elective caesareans were competing with acute C-sections for the only dedicated theatre, and it was a life-threatening situation.

Then the unthinkable happened. A baby died.

I read that story in the Herald this morning. It’s traumatic. My heart goes out to those parents. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to lose your child. I truly can’t imagine that.

But at the same time, it makes me angry too.

Angry that as a first-world country we’re finding ourselves in this situation. Healthy babies shouldn’t die because their mothers are bumped from theatre. That should never happen. Never.

This is about people. Not politics. Address the issue, Minister. This is on your watch.

Again, I come back to Jonathan Coleman’s quote: “The key thing is the hospital can cope.”

No it can’t, Minister. It really can’t. And what are you doing about that?

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