24 Jul 2017

Doctor fears red-tape may force him to leave NZ

11:18 pm on 24 July 2017

An American doctor fears immigration red-tape may force him to be kicked out of the country despite the desperate need for GPs in rural New Zealand.

Dr Mitch Feller has worked in Taranaki for three and a half years.

Dr Mitch Feller has worked in Taranaki for three and a half years. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Originally from South Carolina, Dr Mitch Feller has worked in Taranaki for three and a half years and has been battling Immigration over his status in New Zealand for more than six months.

It comes at a time when patients in Pātea, just 20 minutes up the road, are resorting to using a virtual medical service because there is no permanent doctor.

In October last year, Dr Feller applied for residency under the essential skills category, but discovered he had made a mistake and had to re-apply under the skilled migrant category.

There was a catch however - the cut-off was 65 and he was 67-years-old, and would need a waiver from the Associate Minister of Immigration.

In the meantime, Dr Feller needed to renew his work permit and said to do so he was met with a request for a barrage of new health tests.

"I've been working here as a full-time GP for three years. I haven't caused any trouble. I'm up to date with all my continuing education. I have my practising certificate renewed every year and I couldn't understand why all of a sudden all these extra tests were necessary."

Dr Feller said Immigration New Zealand was inflexible, adversarial and showed a lack of understanding about the shortage of GPs in Taranaki.

He now feared he would not be able to get all the tests he needed done in time to meet Immigration New Zealand's deadline at the end of the month, but insisted he was still fit and ready to serve the Hawera community that needed him.

"I couldn't leave if I wanted to. I've sold everything in the States to get the money to come here. My wife and I both came here with two suitcases a piece, we sold our home, we sold two cars, all of our furniture most of our clothes.

"The only items I saved were my vinyl record albums and my books so I came to stay."

Dr Feller has made headlines before.

In 2005, he was convicted in the United States for self-prescribing OxyContin, which he said he had become addicted to after being under orthopaedic care.

In 2014, his New Zealand medical registration was removed in 2014 after the international firm which placed him at an Opunake clinic ended his contract over what Dr Feller said was a workplace disagreement.

The Medical Council of New Zealand reinstated his practising certificate later that year and he has worked at Hawera since then.

Last year, he came to prominence again when it was revealed Dr Feller was a shareholder in the company making Te Kiri Gold - the much criticised "cancer cure" being used by Sir Colin Meads which was exposed as being little more than diluted bleach.

But there is no arguing South Taranaki has a chronic shortage of GPs.

Patea has not had one for several weeks prompting the launch this week of an online consultation service offered by Ngāti Ruanui in conjunction with high-profile doctor Lance O'Sullivan.

Dr Marlene Bezuidenhout, who owns Mountainview Medical where Dr Feller works, said the situation was critical.

Marlene Bezuidenhout

Marlene Bezuidenhout Photo: Supplied

"Recruitment to Taranaki and specifically South Taranaki has been a long term problem, and then after you've recruited someone, retaining someone is very difficult and people tend to go to the bigger cities.

"For any practice at this stage it would be devastating if they lost a GP."

Dr Bezuidenhout said if Dr Feller was forced out of practice it would have a huge impact.

"Mitch is heading to being three years in New Zealand and every doctor is precious to the practice.

"Losing any doctor would mean there is a significantly higher workload on the other doctors and they just can't take it. Patient demand is just so high we cannot lose anybody."

Quietly waiting for his appointment patient George Wright said he would be horrified if Dr Feller was forced to leave the country.

"Well we're short of GPs anyhow, I've had to wait three weeks for this appointment. So even if he was an ordinary doctor we'd be disadvantage but the fact that he's an excellent doctor makes it even worse."

Mr Wright said the shortage of rural GPs was unacceptable.

"It's terrible, yeah, it's a bad state and I don't want a virtual doctor, I want a real one.

"I think the government should follow up the idea of starting up a third medical school at Waikato University and also Winston Peters' idea of paying the fees of medical students who agree to work in rural areas."

The MP for Whanganui Chester Borrows said he was aware of Dr Feller's case and was working with him to resolve his problems with Immigration.

Immigration New Zealand said it could not discuss Dr Feller's case without a privacy waiver.

It said GPs were included on its Long Term Skill Shortage List, but as with any applications for residency or work visas, applicants were required to meet the relevant immigration criteria.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs