An article in a small provincial paper”The Marlborough Express’ recently caught my eye. It was a story about threats to cut surgical and orthopedic services at the Wairau hospital in Blenheim.
Alarm bells rang for me. Have not we been here before? Thankfully some of us have long memories. It was in the late nineties the previous National government decided to gut the regions by closing or cutting health services. Their aim was to centralise services to a few major centres leaving our small and in some cases not so small regions with basic health care and a requirement for the patients to travel long distances for treatment .
The people’s response was quick and very definite – no way! Thousands gathered, marched and held hands around their hospitals, in Kaitaia, Whakatane, Thames, Masterton and Reefton. Others held large public meetings where hundreds turned out including Blenheim.
It was only after the election of the Labour government in 1999 that the drive to strip the regions of their health care was stopped. We rebuilt and remodeled hospitals and health services from Kaitaia to Invercargill and many places in between. I was fortunate enough to get to open many of the new facilities. Unfortunately Thames new hospital was not one of them, opened soon after the change of government by Mr Ryall, the new minister from a government that had opposed it! ( Labour’s invite obviously got lost in the mail) .
In 1998/99 the people of Marlborough were facing cuts to their surgical services. Their hospital was old with little improvement in the buildings over many years. It was ripe for the National Party axe. Not only were the cuts stopped but a Labour government rebuilt a new hospital on the site. Mr Ryall was again fortunate to get to open it lauding the new facilities, all his own work!
On Wednesday night over 500 people gathered at the Convention Centre in Blenheim. There was standing room only. The organisers were required to open up more space but there was still not enough seats to accommodate them all. The debate was courteous but determined. The members of the DHB attending were given not only clear and cogent reasons why the services had to stay but suggestions for savings that could be made.
It was made clear if after hour surgical services were not available then midwifery services would cease. It’s not possible to run a full maternity service without access to emergency caesarian facilities. Senior doctors made it clear if these services go others would follow. They were also angry they had not even been consulted on the proposed changes.
An ambulance driver who has had to drive patients to Nelson(the place where the services would go) spoke of the 2 hour drive over a mountain range on a road that has continuous log trucks traveling on it.
Brian Dawson from the Chamber of Commerce made a very strong submission for the retention of their health services. He said they were anxious at the ability to retain people in the region if there was not good quality schools, community facilities and hospital services. He spoke of the loyalty of the region to the National Party over many years and it was now time for that loyalty to be reciprocated. He ended his contribution with ‘we will fight to the end’.
Perhaps the most compelling argument came from Dr Linda Scott, former National MP for Marlborough who said quite bluntly-‘people will die’.
It hasn’t taken long for this government to start to attack the health services in the regions of New Zealand. Keep an eye on Ashburton and Westport, there is more to come.
I was glad I was there to hear the communities concerns and to catch up with those who are prepared to speak out. It’s not easy in this current environment where the Minister is swift in censoring any opposition. Just ask the local National MP Colin King who wanted to hold a public meeting to discuss the proposed cuts but was overruled by Mr Ryall!
Labour is committed to strong regional development including the provision of important social services. This is a policy area you will hear more about over the next 18 months.