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Health gets $16 billion over six years - but key election promise missing

Adam Pearse,
Publish Date
Thu, 30 May 2024, 2:44pm

Health gets $16 billion over six years - but key election promise missing

Adam Pearse,
Publish Date
Thu, 30 May 2024, 2:44pm

  • The Government has allocated more than $16 billion across the next three Budgets for health services and cost pressures.
  • National has failed to fund 13 promised cancer drugs, breaking a key election pledge.
  • New funding enhances emergency department security and extends free breast cancer screening up to age 74.
  • Follow our live coverage of Budget 2024 here.

More than $16 billion is set aside by the Government for the next three Budgets to address health cost pressures and maintaining services, while new funding expands free breast cancer screening and emergency department security.

However, absent from health funding in today’s Budget was National’s commitment to start funding 13 new cancer drugs from this year, breaking a promise it took to the election which Finance Minister Nicola Willis admits she regrets.

Over the next four years, $3.4b of new funding has gone towards hospital and specialist services, with another $2.1b for primary and community care.

The spending will form the platform for the Government to achieve ambitious health targets including faster cancer treatment, improved childhood immunisation levels and shorter stays in emergency departments.

Spending to address health’s significant cost pressures has been set out for the next three Budgets or until the 2029/2030 financial year - $5.72b this Budget and $5.48b as pre-commitments against each of the next two Budgets, totalling more than $16b.

One health promise National did uphold was to extend free breast screening to women up to 74 years old - but in a staged approach. The current free screening age range was 45-69.

It required $24 million in operational funding over the next four years and a further $7.2m in capital funding over 10 years. It would enable an additional 40,000 mammograms each year once fully implemented, alongside extra necessary infrastructure.

Another of National’s central health commitments before the election was missing, however - to fund 13 new cancer drugs that were recommended by the Cancer Control Agency.

National’s pre-election manifesto said it would cost $280m over the next four years, with $70m of that funding starting in the 2024/25 financial year.

Speculation had grown that National was shifting away from funding the new drugs, given Health Minister Dr Shane Reti recently said the promise would be honoured only when the funding was available.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis said her Government was committed to expanding access to cancer drugs and was disappointed the 13 new drugs couldn’t be funded from this Budget.

“We regret that it hasn’t been possible in this Budget.”

She explained the policy would have made a “fundamental change” to how the national drug buying agency, Pharmac, operated in that the agency traditionally had control over what drugs it purchased.

However, Willis said she was “determined” to deliver on National’s promise.

Emergency department (ED) security also received a boost in the Budget, building on the Government’s spending to increase security over the summer.

Almost $31m over the next four years would provide an extra 44 full-time security staff in eight “high-risk” EDs - Waitākere, North Shore, Auckland City, Middlemore, Waikato, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin hospitals.

Another 10 staff would be funded to provide support anywhere across the country following serious incidents or during peak holiday periods.

During the summer, the Government spent $5.7m to employ 200 more security staff, given more security incidents occurred during the holiday period. That was scaled down in later months.

The Government has followed through on a National promise to reinstate the $5 prescription co-payment, which was scrapped by the previous Labour government. The re-directed money was originally intended to pay for the 13 new cancer drugs.

Instead, Reti confirmed the $116.1m over five years saved by the Government not covering that fee would be “reinvested into frontline services”.

The co-payment would be covered for those under 14 years old, people over 65 years old and Community Services Card holders.

Willis said Reti was advancing work to upgrade IT systems in pharmacies to allow “high health users” to be exempt as well. Willis defined a high health user as living in a household that accessed more than 20 prescriptions in a year.

Adam Pearse is a political reporter in the NZ Herald Press Gallery team, based at Parliament. He has worked for NZME since 2018, covering sport and health for the Northern Advocate in Whangārei before moving to the NZ Herald in Auckland, covering Covid-19 and crime.

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