West Coast District Health Board is being accused of deceit after residents of a Reefton elderly care unit were whisked away ostensibly because of Covid risk.

It was not a pretty sight.  

An elderly woman wailing — her arms outstretched in anguish as she was taken from the only home her fading brain recognises these days: Ziman House at Reefton Hospital. 

She was one of 10 residents whisked away with what locals say was indecent haste from the aged-care facility this month by the West Coast District Health Board. 

All were moved to private rest homes in Greymouth, Hokitika and Christchurch — ostensibly to avoid a care crisis that could unfold if Reefton nursing staff are struck down by Covid. 

The DHB says the closure is temporary and the residents will return in June when the peak of the pandemic “should have passed”. 

None wanted to go, according to relatives, and tearful local staff tried hard to soften the blow. 

But the sudden move — described by some as a snatch and grab — sent shock waves through the town and fuelled suspicion that the board is out to close the much-loved care home for good. 

Thinking the unthinkable

It didn’t help that the DHB chose the same week to change the sign outside the health centre from Reefton Hospital to Reefton Health — Hauora Inangahua.   

The former cottage hospital is within walking distance for many locals — a place where the five staff are like family, and relatives can easily pop in to visit. 

The prospect of closure is unthinkable for Reefton people such as Peter Short.

For years he has been able to visit his stroke-afflicted wife Dawn several times a day, helping her to eat and taking her on wheelchair jaunts into the village. 

But his partner of 55 years is now an hour’s drive away in Greymouth’s Granger House.“I accept that this has to happen for now but it’s extremely important that we retain Ziman House in Reefton. I would like to think we could trust the DHB and at this point I do.”  

Others are less optimistic. 

At a hastily called public meeting in a Reefton park, accusations of deceit and disrespect rained down on board members and bureaucrats who fronted to defend their decision.   

“It was badly done,” community stalwart Moira Lockington says.  

The fierce 81-year old has been campaigning since the 1970s to keep medical services in Reefton. 

But despite the efforts of townspeople, all that’s left of what was once a thriving small hospital are Ziman House, a palliative care room and GP rooms for locums employed by the DHB. 

“Over the years the board’s taken everything, from the maternity annex and the visiting specialists to the hydrotherapy pool we raised funds for, but now it’s being cagey about the palliative care room and the way it took our old people was a new low,”  she says.

“There were some awful scenes when they went.”

Read all about it

In a letter to Reefton’s newsletter, the Clarion, local man Trevor Prendergast endorsed that. 

“As a stepson of one of the 10 residents at Ziman House, I can tell you that this closure was done with no respect or dignity.”

That was no reflection on the Reefton staff, he says. 

Relatives of the care-home residents were contacted by the DHB on Friday, February 25, and told about the plan to move them within the next seven to 10 days.

But Prendergast says the DHB swooped early.

“Five days later, all residents had been shipped out, some in quite a distressed state — bloody appalling,” he wrote.  

“My brother was going to come over from Christchurch and take Mum back last week, but at 4pm on Tuesday the DHB rang to say she was going off by ambulance in the morning.”  

When the Reefton Hospital sign was changed to Reefton Health, suspicions were aroused about the facility’s fate. Photo: Lois Williams

By the time townspeople turned out for the public meeting on March 2, hoping to find  an alternative to closure, Ziman House had been emptied of its elderly occupants. 

The reason for the apparent pre-emptive strike may be Reefton’s previous track record in protecting local health services, Prendergast suspects.   

In 1988, a DHB bid to close the hospital fell flat after the town’s population of about 1000 turned out  to encircle the building, linking arms and vowing to defend it in a protest that led TV news that night.  

This time similar plans were afoot, Prendergast says.  

“We had thought if the worst came to the worst we’d get a  few of Rosco Contractors’  machines and block the hospital entrance. We didn’t expect them [the DHB] to move so fast.”  

The DHB’s secrecy over the temporary closure still rankles. The plan was revealed to board members by staff at a closed meeting the night before relatives were contacted.

“You’d think if this was really the best thing for our old people, they’d have been shouting it from the rooftops to the community,” Prendergast says. 

“But they had staff from away secretly assessing the residents weeks before they bundled them off  — even the Reefton staff didn’t know why or what was going on.”

An assurance by DHB general manager Phil Wheble that there would be “learnings”  from the exercise has prompted much eye-rolling but provided little reassurance. 

“It’s a bit late for ‘learnings’,” Lockington says. 

“The DHBs go out of existence at the end of June. How good is a promise from them now?” 

Back by June

DHB chair Rick Barker is adamant the closure of Ziman House will be brief.

“There is a solid commitment by the board to reopen and bring the residents back in June, before the DHBs disband,” he told Newsroom. 

He says board members were assured by DHB managers that the decision to move the residents was a precautionary one, based on purely clinical grounds. 

Most need hospital-level care and that entails the oversight of a registered nurse.

“We now have Covid on the coast, and what happens if it takes out critical staff?   Then you have an emergency on your hands and you have to act in haste. If we’d delayed we could have had a worse situation.” 

Lockington is sceptical about the supposed risk.

“One of our nurses who’s been stranded in Australia by Covid rules has come back this week, and another one who’s been seconded to vaccination clinics can come back now as well. The DHB’s reasons don’t really stack up in our view.”

Some fear their elderly relatives have been put at higher risk by moving them to bigger rest homes in larger towns where they stand  more chance of coming in contact with the virus. 

Ziman House is one of just a handful of DHB rest homes left in the country – and it’s not the only one to close this month.  

Four rural Canterbury hospitals in Waikari, Darfield, Oxford and Ellesmere have also shipped out residents and patients and transferred them to private rest homes to wait out the Omicron onslaught.

The mayors of those towns have written to the Canterbury DHB and Health Minister Andrew Little relaying community concerns about the safety of their elderly folk — and fears that the closures will be permanent. 

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine shares those concerns.

He wants DHB managers to explain how the Reefton hospital was allowed to get into such a situation.

“It came as a complete surprise to board members. I think we need to know why, and why management weren’t better organised. There may be alternative solutions [to closure] if they’d talk to the community.”

DHBs come running

For Simon Wallace, who heads the New Zealand Aged Care Association, there is a bitter irony in the closures. 

“We’ve been fighting a losing battle to keep nurses in private rest homes because they earn up to $20,000 more a year if they work for DHBs; we’re already under huge strain and the DHBs come running to us saying places like Reefton are not set up for Omicron.

“We’ve had strategies in place for two years to deal with this — it’s surprising that an aged-care facility run by a DHB is not ready.”

Nurses and caregivers at rest homes like Greymouth’s Granger House were understandably exasperated at being suddenly loaded with extra work looking after the DHB residents, Wallace says. 

“Staff are working double shifts as it is in many places. We should have 5000 registered nurses in rest homes — we have 4000. The situation is absolutely dire — we’ve lost 700 beds in the last six months because of this.” 

*NEWSROOM has asked the DHB under the OIA for any internal reports, minutes and correspondence relating to the future of Reefton Hospital and Ziman House staffing numbers and the facility’s name change. The DHB says it will decide how to respond by April 5. It has in the past taken several months to deal with OIA requests, providing information only after complaints to the Ombudsman. 

*Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund*

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