NZ Election 2020: How Labour's billion-dollar health policy compares to National's

Labour plans to lift emergency dental grants to $1000, expand mental health support for kids, boost Pharmac funding, double the number of cochlear implants, and reduce surgery waiting lists. 

The Government has invested $2 billion in the fight against COVID-19 so far, as well as $3 billion into district health boards (DHBs) and $3.5 billion to fix run-down hospitals, and Labour's health spokesperson Chris Hipkins says there's more to do. 

Labour is promising $176 million to increase grants for emergency dental care from $300 to $1000. It will also invest $37.5 million to provide an additional 20 full service mobile dental clinics and focus them on hard to reach areas. 

"We know oral health is a significant issue, especially for those on low incomes for whom cost is a barrier to access the services they need," Hipkins said on Tuesday. 

Increasing support for dental care was a recommendation in the Welfare Expert Advisory Group's report in 2019. The Special Needs Grant for dental care hasn't moved in over two decades, and Hipkins said the boost will make a difference. 

National leader Judith Collins said on Tuesday it was a good idea. 

A Ministry of Health report in 2018 found that poor oral health "is largely preventable, yet it is also one of the more common chronic health problems" experienced by New Zealanders of all ages. 

"A sizable proportion of the adult population does not access oral health care due to cost," the report said. "These adults are more likely to be Māori, Pacific, or from deprived areas."

Hipkins acknowledged that Māori children access dental services at lower rates than Pākehā children, which is why the additional mobile dental clinics that visit schools is one way to ensure all kids access dental care equitably. 

By comparison, the National Party has promised to increase spending on childhood dental services by $30 million per year, but stopped short of offering anything for adults. 

"We put the effort into young people," Collins said. 

Labour also wants to help kids by making mental health support available to all primary and intermediate school-age students in the country and continue the roll-out of nurses in secondary schools.

Hipkins said Labour will expand the Mana Ake programme, launched in February last year as the first stage of the Government's plan to deliver dedicated mental health support to children in school years 1-8 across Canterbury. 

"The Mana Ake programme in the Canterbury region has made a huge difference to children and families adversely affected by the earthquakes and terror attack," Hipkins said. 

"The next step in our expansion of mental health support will see the roll-out of mental health and wellbeing support services to every primary and intermediate-aged school child in New Zealand over the next five years."

Labour also plans to expand, in tranches, the nurses in schools programme that currently covers decile 1-5 secondary schools to include all other state and state-integrated secondary schools.

National has committed to a nationwide goal of 'zero suicides', something Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has avoided, and it would require schools to deliver a skills-based mental health and resilience training programme from years 1-13.

Labour is committing to $200 million over four years to boost the budget of the Government's drug-buying agency Pharmac, while National is committing $200 million over four years for cancer drugs, $20 million over four years for rare disorders and a boost to Pharmac's budget of $90 million a year. 

Pharmac's purchasing is at arm's length from the Government, but Hipkins said he would "anticipate a similar result" from the agency after its $60 million boost in Budget 2019 which resulted in range of new medicines being funded.

Both Labour and National are committing to reducing the waiting time for surgeries too. 

The average waiting time for patients receiving elective surgery during June this year was 95.3 days compared to 62.3 in December. Many treatments were delayed during March, April, and May when New Zealand was in COVID-19 alert levels 3 and 4.

Labour is committing $200 million to help reduce waiting times on top of the $283 million already invested to catch up on deferred treatments. National is promising to ensure elective surgeries are done within four months.

Labour is also promising $28 million to doubling the number of cochlear implants undertaken each year from 80 to 160, while National has promised to increase them to 100. 

National has signalled its plan to spend less than Labour because it wants to reduce debt quicker, by getting debt to 36 percent of GDP by 2034, compared to Labour which by that time will get debt to 48 percent of GDP. 

The Government opened up its books showing operating allowances for health of $2.4 billion for 2021/2022 and the same amount for 2022/2023. In contrast, National allocated $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively. 

National has argued it will spend taxpayer money more wisely than Labour, and it hopes to boost the economy by offering income tax relief for 16 months if elected to power. 

Labour will also introduce a Māori Health Authority which was recommended the Health and Disability System Review. Labour would also work on its other recommendations, such as having fewer DHBs, and an aged care commissioner.

Labour has proposed $120 million over four years for this work.