Mental health: Andrew Little vents frustration at slow progress upgrading facilities

The Health Minister has vented his frustration at the slow progress being made on rebuilding and upgrading some of New Zealand's mental health facilities.

Newshub revealed on Monday just five additional acute mental health beds have been added to the country's facilities following the Government's investment in 2019. Of the $1.9 billion budget, $235 million has been allocated for capital spending - meaning building facilities - but only $541,000 of it has actually been spent.

Health Minister Andrew Little on Tuesday announced he was ordering an independent review to understand what's causing the hold up.

Speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday, Little said the building programme consisted of five projects, most of which are rebuilds with one big upgrade. 

"That's the frustrating thing. It is like all health capital projects. They just take a long time but there is urgency with this," he said. "We know there is urgency with the mental health services and I am just disappointed and frustrated that two years on we are still in the design and planning stage for four out of the five projects.

"Is it fast enough? No, I would like it to be faster because the demand on acute mental health services is growing."

The minister said $9 million had been spent by District Health Boards (DHBs) so far on the projects, most of which hadn't been reimbursed by the Ministry of Health. 

"The big spend comes when the construction starts. That's not due to start until next year," he said. "But this is on the basis of a mental health crisis that we all knew we had, including on the acute end. I am just frustrated that it takes so long to get something like that done."

However, Little said the Government is making progress with services aimed at those with mild to moderate mental health issues. 

"Money has been spent obviously. We have 520 people in frontline primary healthcare roles doing just mental health stuff that weren't there two years ago," he said. "That's across a whole range of GP practices, community practices, kaupapa Maori health services and so on. We have got a range of other things done."

He said if those people are treated appropriately, "we prevent people from having to go to use those acute services". 

"We need to be doing both at the same time and we just don't seem to be good at that."

National's Judtih Collins told The AM Show she was "staggered at [the Government's] incompetence". 

"Not only have they let down New Zealanders, but they promised New Zealanders so much," Collins told The AM Show on Wednesday. "You saw it with Mike King - he's just given up on them." 

Last week, King - a mental health advocate - returned his New Zealand Order of Merit, which he was awarded in 2019 for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention. While that year he sung the praises of the Government's promised $1.9 billion investment in the area, he feels little has changed in the time since.