26 Feb 2016

GP service to turn away latest refugees in funding row

6:50 am on 26 February 2016

The biggest GP service for refugees in the Hutt Valley is going to turn away the 30 Syrians who arrive today, saying lack of government funding makes it unsafe to take them.

Hutt Union Health made the decision, which it described as heartbreaking and the only time it had ever done this, at an emergency board meeting last night.

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Photo: 123RF

Ninety Syrians are due in the capital today but the 30 in the Hutt Valley will not be able to enrol with a GP at Hutt Union's two centres in Petone and Pomare, even though it has the most experience with refugees.

Hutt Union has battled for three years over money and the culmination came last night, coincidentally on the eve of the Syrians' arrival.

A last-gasp offer made by its main funder, the primary health organisation (PHO) Te Awakairangi Health Network, was not good enough, according to Hutt Union Health's manager Sally Nicholl.

"Currently we have 450 refugees with no funding, and there's new refugees coming in, and we've been offered $500 per refugee over two years. It's a short-term fix, it's insufficient. The DHB is paying nothing, they're putting nothing towards refugee primary health in the Hutt Valley."

Ms Nicholl contrasted the total on offer from the Hutt PHO - $60,000 over 15 months - with Wellington's DHB which puts $500,000 a year into refugee primary health care, helping to pay for specialist doctors and nurses in Newtown and Porirua.

"We don't think it's safe for our patients, we don't think it's safe for the new refugees. We can't provide the health service we want and the care we want. It takes time and dedication to service refugees well, and that funding doesn't allow us to do it.

"The doctors and nurses are in agreement that funding is inadequate - they wanted us to take refugees in and we wanted to take refugees. This is a really difficult decision for us. We are heartbroken at the outcome."

Ms Nicholl said the Te Awakairangi PHO would now be trying to find GPs to enrol the refugees with, otherwise they would end up at the hospital emergency department.

The Ministry of Health gave RNZ News a statement saying it was "confident that the health care needs of these new arrivals will be met, just as they have been for refugees in the past".

The Hutt Valley DHB said, also in a statement, that it was talking with the ministry about funding for the extra refugees but no decisions had been made.

Last September when the government announced it would take 750 Syrians, the Prime Minister said officials had told him they could cope though it was "stretching the system".

Jeff Thomas who manages the capital's Refugee Trauma Recovery service that will help the incoming Syrians, including those from the Hutt, said he was really concerned.

"We think the situation out in the Hutt is appalling," he said.

"They don't get the kind of financial support that comes down to GP level, so that if they get in to see a GP there, they're going to have to pay the same as everyone else, and also the GPs don't have any money to bring in interpreters."

Hutt Union Health does use interpreters, but it's costly - in its experience it can take 20 minutes just to arrange an appointment with a refugee.

Jeff Thomas's service gets $660,000 a year from the Hutt and Wellington DHBs, an amount that's has not budged for several years.

He estimated a third of the Hutt's 30 Syrians would need extra help due to torture and trauma.

"The government knows that it's bringing in people with these high needs. So the health needs, it's a no brainer, that's got to be their first call, and Red Cross volunteers, the first thing they do is sign them up with a GP service.

"To increase the quota and to not increase resources accordingly, is irresponsible in my view," he said.

The Hutt is not alone in struggling.

The main refugee resettlement centre in Mangere has had no extra funding so far for its mental health services, despite two extra intakes of Syrians since November.

RNZ News has sought comment from Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.

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