Andrew Little defends Government after report finds no change in access to acute mental health services despite $1.9 billion boost

Health Minister Andrew Little is defending the Government after a report found no change in access to acute and specialist mental health services despite a $1.9 billion funding boost. 

The Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission on Tuesday released its new report for 2022 which assessed what is working well, and what is not, in the mental health and addiction sector. It found no change in access to specialist mental health services in five years despite the Government's huge cash injection in 2019. 

The review found that one-in-five people in New Zealand are not followed up after discharge from acute inpatient mental health units and one in six are re-admitted to hospital within 28 days of discharge. It also found there is a lack of data on mental health and addiction needs and wait times for young people to access specialist services continue to be high. Māori also experience disproportionately higher rates of community treatment orders and solitary confinement and the number of community treatment orders has increased at the same rate as specialist mental health service use over the past five years​. In fact, there has been an overall increase in the use of solitary confinement from 2016 to 2020

National hit out at the Government over the report, with mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey questioning where the money had gone. Doocey claimed workers on the frontline line haven't seen any of the money and nothing has changed. 

But speaking with AM on Wednesday, Andrew Little said that is "simply not correct". 

"Matt Doocey and the National Party have a lot to answer for because of their nine years of neglect to the mental health system."

Little said the money is being spent and it is making a difference. 

"Of the $1.9 billion, about $800 million of it went to a variety of other Government departments - Corrections, Education, and the Ministry of Social Development to do a range of mental health things for their area. 

"For the Ministry of Health, the $1.1 billion they've got, over a four year period nearly half a billion dollars is going into what we call the Access and Choice program. Two years into that program we've added 850 full-time equivalent roles or people to the frontline of mental health.

"It is simply not correct for people like Matt Doocey and others to say the money is going nowhere. It is going all over the place and it is making a difference."

Little said the total package is about addressing mental health across the board including people in prison and the education system, which is why Corrections and Education are getting funding. 

When asked why only five new acute mental health beds had been added despite the huge cash boost, Little said they're in the process of rebuilding facilities which will mean new beds in the long run. 

He highlighted Hillmorton Hospital which is under construction and a large project in Waikato which is in the final design stage. 

"Both of those facilities when they are completed will mean additional beds to the system. There are other facilities that are being upgraded, they will mean additional beds too. It does take a bit of time when you're building a new building to get that to completion," he said. 

But Little said the review was fair to say more work is needed in the specialist and acute area - which he says is underway. 

He said the Government was working to better meet patient's needs before they became acute. 

"The priority that the report we had in 2018 said was to deal with those with mild to moderate mental health conditions, that's the big gap, that's what we gave priority to. And by working at that end of the mental health challenges…We actually prevent a lot of people getting to the acute and specialist phase anyway."

Little said it will take time to get the mental health sector up to speed after nine years of underfunding by National. 

The report wasn't entirely critical of the Government. It said the Government has "made a promising start to addressing the recommendations made in He Ara Oranga" but "there is an understandable lag between the new services being commissioned and getting up and running, and challenges in recruiting and retaining the workforce required impacts this". 

There were some positive conclusions in the report, including that use of telehealth and digital supports is increasing as they become more available, and access to primary mental health services has increased over the past year. 

The Health Minister last year established an external oversight group for mental health. The Government launched a new long-term plan to support people who experience mental distress.

In addition, the Government on Monday launched a new two-year recruitment campaign to bring on more mental health nurses. 

This year the Government has funded 234 new-entry places for registered nurses to specialise in mental health from the $77 million workforce development fund, part of Budget 2019, and it's hoped the campaign could help double that number.