Te Whatu Ora Health NZ stops allowing public to view monthly board meetings

In a change of tune, Health New Zealand Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) will no longer allow the public or media to attend and scrutinise the board's monthly meetings.

Health NZ is the country's largest employer and looks after the planning and commissioning of health services across the country, encompassing the functions of the previous district health boards (DHBs).

March's board meeting was held on Friday and would normally begin with an open session that anyone could watch, followed by a confidential closed meeting.

Instead, when Newshub asked for a link to the online meeting, a statement from the board chair Dame Karen Poutasi was provided stating a public session would no longer be part of the monthly meetings.

"The Board is conscious there are already a number of ways for people to learn about the work of Health NZ - something we had used the open board sessions to promote," it said.

Health NZ was "committed to openness and transparency and building on the information available about its work", the statement read.

It proactively put information out through channels and publications and was responsive to media queries and making senior leaders available for interviews, it said.

It said it also published quarterly reports with wide-ranging information on progress, achievements and challenges.

When the organisation was formed it held similar closed meetings and came under intense scrutiny because of it, especially from the then-Opposition MP Dr Shane Reti.

Dr Reti - who is now the Health Minister - told RNZ in August 2022 that Health NZ was "accountable for significant public financing and, significantly, for caring for New Zealanders", he said.

"It seems to be that sort of scrutiny is appropriate and warranted," Dr Reti argued.

He also said being present provided extra details.

"You see the body language, you see the sighs, you see the rolling of the eyes," he said.

Then-board chair Rob Campbell defended the right for closed meetings, but on Friday said he was "surprised" the board had reverted back to its old ways.

He said there was a clear appetite for an open session which is why one was eventually introduced when he was chair.

Labour's health spokesperson Dr Ayesha Verrall did not support the new move to close off the meetings.

"Te Whatu Ora is responsible for vital health services and more than $22 billion of public money. The public deserves to know what is being worked on and how the board is operating," she said in a statement.

"Dr Reti should take his own advice and ensure [Health NZ] is being as transparent as possible, including publicly broadcasting the open session of board meetings online."

Dr Reti said Health New Zealand had made "steady improvements" in how they communicated with the public.

But he said he would be discussing with the board chair how it could be more open with its decision-making.

"The Government's recently announced health targets will also help bring more transparency to ensure the public have confidence in the performance of the health system," he said.

Dame Karen said the number of individual viewers for open sessions over the past six months peaked at only 149 on one occasion, dropping as low as 48 more recently.

"A number of these viewers are our own people, and there are existing channels and regular opportunities to keep them informed."

Dame Karen was not available for an interview on the decision, as she was attending the board meeting all day Friday.