National to lay complaint over handling of mental health report

The National Party will lodge a formal complaint over the "outrageous politicisation" of a report into New Zealand's mental health services that was delivered late and lacking information. 

The annual report from the Office of the Director of Mental Health and Addiction Services usually arrives annually, looking back at the state of the mental health system a year earlier. But the 2018 and 2019 reports weren't published on time, Stuff reporting they were subject to revisions and cuts by officials in the Ministry of Health. 

A combined report for the two years was finally published in March, but it was shorter than previous reports had been - despite covering twice as much time.

"It certainly seems to have been, from Official Information Act (OIA) requests... there was some doctoring of that report," National leader Judith Collins told The AM Show on Wednesday.

Documents and emails released under the OIA show officials asked for certain details to be removed, including data on suicide. One official said the report wasn't a legal requirement, suggesting it be made "much shorter", while another suggested it had a lot of "negative statistics" in it. 

While some blamed COVID-19 for the delays, emails show Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield gave the 2018 report his blessing to be published then - but it was still held back after his deputy Robyn Shearer said she hadn't read it and wanted a "risk lens" put on it first, Stuff reported. 

Collins said she hoped no Government ministers were involved in the delays. 

"We hope it's not from the Beehive, but it's certainly very high up in the Ministry of Health. And the Ministry of Health having any role in doctoring health statistics is an extremely serious situation. 

"So we've been talking in the National Party about this, and we'll be putting in a complaint to the Public Services Commissioner about what's gone on. We just think it's outrageous politicisation of not only the public service but of an incredibly important part of our health system." 

She said even Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson - "not a National Party person" - was unhappy with the ministry's handling of the report. 

"What we've seen is the mental health situation has gotten worse despite all the rhetoric from the Government, and it is something that we expect that they will, they must be held to account for. This is a tremendously important part of our health sector, but also it's the right thing to do." 

Judith Collins.
Judith Collins. Photo credit: The AM Show

The ministry earlier this week told Stuff it acknowledged the report was late, and came at a time of change for the mental health system.

"What you are seeing from the emails is a drive to do better, make things easier to read and understand and to innovate and change. That’s not always straightforward or easy process," said Acting Director-General for mental health and addictions Toni Gutschlag.

The call to shrink the report was made to focus it on the Mental Health Act, she said, and other data would be released in other ways more regularly. 

The Public Services Commissioner - currently Peter Hughes - heads the Public Service Commission, which oversees the performance of the state sector. Chris Hipkins is the minister responsible. 

"What the National Party chooses to do is a matter for the National Party," Health Minister Andrew Little told Newshub.

"All data typically available in the Director of Mental Health's report remains publicly available."

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