Ministry of Health 'considering options' to increase funding

By Phil Pennington of RNZ

The Health Ministry says the 2020 Budget has not delivered any "additional sustainable" funding to bolster the country's public health units.

Sixty-five million dollars is going to the dozen units to run their regular work across health education, environmental health and tobacco control, and communicable disease control.

The College of Public Health says the pandemic has exposed a "massive" shortfall in investment over many years, leading to a chronic lack of specialists, both of doctors and non-medical disciplines.

Half of the current specialists - who number just 172 nationwide as against 130 in 2005 - expect to retire in the next decade.

"In the short term, the ministry is currently considering options to increase funding available for new Public Health Medicine Registrars in 2021," the ministry said in a statement.

It is putting $1.3m into training this year, which helps fund eight new trainees.

Another 20 are already on the 45-month-long training programme.

The incremental increases in public health doctor numbers has been outpaced by population growth, whereas most of the more popular medical specialisations have not.

The workforce is dominated by women (60 percent), with a mean age of 53.

A third work in public health units, a tenth at the ministry and almost 40 percent at universities.

"Public Health Medicine Specialists are a highly valued workforce," the ministry said.

An overall review of the health system led by Heather Simpson, said in its interim advice last year that the Government must centrally drive health workforce planning and supply as a matter of urgency.

That review has not reported back yet but may do in coming weeks.

The ministry said an additional $30m was going to public health units to significantly increase their COVID-19 contact tracing capacity. This is a bit under half what was put into a boost for the tracing system at both regional and national levels, in an attempt to get it to "gold standard" after a critical audit in late April.

The $30m is part of an additional $200-plus million that Budget 2020 put into the overall public health response to the pandemic.

However, as to baseline funding for the 12 units, "the Budget... did not include any additional sustainable funding for PHUs", the ministry said.

The units' $65m is a small part of the Budget's total public health service funding of $469m. This is up 6.5 percent on last year, or 2.3 percent of total government health spending. Budget documents from 2010 put its share back then at just under four percent.