Last-ditch negotiations have settled a funding crisis over home-based health care in South Canterbury, writes Rebecca Macfie

Major disruption to essential in-home care in the Timaru region has been avoided after Healthcare New Zealand extracted a substantial lift in funding from the local district health board.

As Newsroom reported last month , Healthcare NZ was in the process of walking away from a contract to provide in-home care for 140 elderly, disabled and unwell people in the South Canterbury region. The company said the level of DHB funding was “grossly inadequate”, and that it was losing $200,000 a year on the contract.

Care workers and vulnerable clients were caught in the crossfire in the funding dispute and the planned transfer of the Healthcare NZ contract to three other home care contractors.

Workers were confronted with wage cuts, loss of guaranteed hours, and loss of service entitlements accumulated over many years. One worker, Camella Ross, was faced with a $2 an hour pay cut to $25 an hour, despite 20 years of service. Clients were anxious about who would be taking over their care.

The Public Service Association filed legal proceedings in a bid to force the workers to be transferred with their existing pay and conditions intact.

The legal challenge triggered a further round of negotiations between South Canterbury DHB chief executive Jason Power and Healthcare NZ chief executive Jo Gagan, resulting in a 9 percent increase in funding from the DHB. Gagan said the increase will also apply to the other home care contractors in the district.

She had originally sought an increase of 13 percent in contract funding, but said the 9 percent agreed on, combined with savings from internal restructuring, will enable her company to break even on the contract.

The PSA yesterday said it had withdrawn its legal action, and claimed the deal as a victory for worker activism. “This is a clear example of workers putting their clients first. It means workers and clients can stay together and workers keep their terms and conditions,” said assistant secretary Melissa Woolley. The union is continuing to pressure Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood to amend a key schedule to the Employment Relations Act (Part 6A), which protects workers from having their pay cut simply because their work has been contracted out to another employer.

Home care support remains a messy, unstable battleground, however. Gagan alleges the sector is seriously underfunded, and the Government’s decision this week to walk away from the Covid elimination strategy makes it even more important that the in-home care service is shored up.

“I predict that, given the situation we are now in and the change in the strategy that the Government seems to have had with Covid, that it will fall on community providers like us to care for people who perhaps aren’t as unwell as some, because the demand is likely to outstrip the availability of hospital beds. It’s something we are talking to the Ministry of Health about…The key thing is let’s work together on this, and let’s plan and prepare so we can support New Zealanders in whatever way we can to live with Covid.”

Gagan’s predictions match an increased focus in Australia on the role of community care in taking the pressure off hospitals overloaded by the pandemic.

The federal government is working on ways to expand community care so that people who get Covid can be treated outside the hospital system, on the assumption that vaccination will protect most from serious illness. Health secretary Brendan Murphy told the Sydney Morning Herald this week that community care would become “the mainstay of treatment with Covid. In a highly vaccinated scenario, we will not get a large number of people, hopefully, that will need hospital care.”

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