No timeframes for Māori Health Authority to improve Māori life expectancy, but Andrew Little wants gap reduced 'completely'

The Health Minister can't provide specific timeframes for when he'd like to see the Māori Health Authority improve life expectancy for Māori, but says the aim is to close the gap completely.

According to StatsNZ, the life expectancy for Māori is roughly seven years below that of non-Māori. It's one of the reasons the Government is establishing the Māori Health Authority which will be tasked with commissioning services and achieving equitable outcomes for Māori.

Andrew Little, the Health Minister, told AM on Thursday that the inequities are "shameful" and reflect a "systematic lack of access to health care". He said "we need to close that gap as much as we can, as soon as we can".

"I can't put a timeframe on that. These things happen over a matter of years. The aim is to reduce that completely," Little said.

"If you want to set a meaningful target, a measurable goal it is that we have more Māori getting access to services in a way that they don't at the moment."

A report from the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) last year found that at the current rate of progress, it would take more than 100 years for life expectancy equity between Māori and non-Māori.

Little said the role of the new agency was similar to how the Government "handed over leadership and responsibility" for the Māori COVID-19 vaccination campaign to Māori. 

"We saw a massive difference, a massive lift in uptake of the vaccination amongst Māori. It's effectively what we want to do with the Māori Health Authority. Saying to the Māori Health Authority, you take over the leadership of running it, you know how to get to your people, you get to your people, you make sure the services get your people.

"More access to those services will mean that we will improve life chances for Māori."

When asked how it would be similar to that, given the vaccination campaign was handled by Māori community groups rather than a large, centralised organisation like the Māori Health Authority will be, Little said the new entity will be able to commission kaupapa Māori health services.

"They will work with those Māori health services to get the best out of them, provide the development and to the staff… work with them to develop their coverage and their reach so there's a bunch of services tailored to Māori, particularly those who struggle to get access to health services. The frontline services will be delivered by Māori health organisations."

The Government has allocated $22 million from last Budget's Māori Health Authority commissioning funding to a number of services identified by the interim agency. That includes towards mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) services, developing the Māori workforce and supporting Māori providers looking at innovation and sustainability. 

The Health Minister said he doesn't expect Māori will be prioritised on surgery wait-lists solely based on their ethnicity. Other clinical judgements would be considered, he said. Māori may, however, get early access to some services like bowel screening given that they are prone to colon and bowel cancers earlier than European populations.

"We are actively looking at whether we allow Māori to get access to that screening process earlier by age than European because it makes sense epidemiologically to do so. There are those sort of things that might make a difference, but on surgery lists, probably not."

The Māori Health Authority will be up and running from July 1, alongside HealthNZ, a new body that replaces the 20 District Health Boards and will have responsibility for the implementation of health services. The Ministry of Health will move into a strategy and policy-orientated role.