Labour, National and Greens representatives all had plans to tackle the diabetes epidemic at a panel in Auckland last night, but a leading endocrinologist said more attention needs to be put on addressing stigma.

Dr Rosemary Hall said the stigma of diabetes comes from the top.

Diabetes solutions staring us in the face
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National’s Dr Shane Reti, Greens health spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March and Labour’s Michael Wood all fielded questions from a crowd consisting of a number of doctors and parents of children with diabetes.

It was a sharp and specific problem for them to turn their minds to in the midst of a series of campaign events usually only able to skate briefly over the issues.

It was also something of a return from the wilderness for Michael Wood, whose previously prominent position on Labour’s front lines has waned since his ministerial resignation three months ago.

When asked why he was appearing to lock horns with the National and Greens spokespeople instead of Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall, he said it was a byproduct of a hectic election season.

When asked if he was getting out in front of people in the first steps back to a leadership role within the party, he took a philosophical approach.

“Getting out there absolutely, I’m here to lean in and support the campaign however I can,” he said. “It’s one step at a time, we try and win the election, get back in, and then of course I’d love to get back into a portfolio, but we’ll just see where the chips lie.”

Like any Labour politician during this campaign, Wood found himself having to defend the current government’s track record – and in this case, the role of Pharmac.

Members of the audience asked all three politicians what they would do to support the near 300,000 people in New Zealand estimated to have diabetes.

Particular pressure came on why continuous glucose monitors are not funded. Continuous glucose monitoring is a system allowing diabetic people to easily measure their blood sugar levels.

It’s technology that allows parents to check their child’s glucose levels in their sleep, granting huge peace of mind and statistically decreasing the number of hospital visits. However, it’s not cheap.

One mother of a child with Type One Diabetes said she spent $100 a week on a monitor for her child. 

“We had to not pay our mortgage last month, because we’ve been having to catch up to pay for her CGM,” she said.

She said the stress of the situation had had its own impact on her, leading to mental health issues and weight loss.

“I haven’t told anybody, but I’m actually Type Two now, because of the stress, and I can’t afford to get a CGM because we pay for hers.”

It was evidently a sobering moment for the politicians on stage who had to explain why the technology continues to cost Kiwi families in the pocket.

Diabetes NZ CEO Heather Verry said she and her organisation had been “shoved off” by the government over the past six years, and wanted to know why Pharmac’s funding model couldn’t take future savings into account.

Reti and Menéndez March, had an opportunity to set out what their party would do if it led government. Wood, however, was in the difficult position of defending Labour’s performance while also promising it would do better.

“This is one of the wicked problems that we face in our roles… there’s always a situation where we often know that there are things that we can invest in that will have positive long-term impacts, and if you are just looking at it through a fiscal lens, will pay off – but you’ve still got to pay for it now… set against all of the other things that are coming through as priorities.”

Reti would not be goaded by moderator Guyon Espiner into revealing specific party policy, saying specific health targets would be revealed in the next week.

Being the only actual medical professional on stage gave Reti something of an edge, as he could talk his way through the issues with a doctorly calmness with the common refrain that he would follow the science.

He said the projected rise of diabetes in New Zealand was like an oncoming tsunami for which we were not prepared.

His main solution came in fixing gaps in diabetes-focused workers in the workforce, but he didn’t provide a clear answer on how a National-led government would do this.

He also said data-gathering needed to be bolstered to make sure targets were accurate.

Menéndez March meanwhile emphasised the inequitable social landscape that had led to New Zealand’s high level of diabetes.

“This is a disease of poverty, and particularly relative poverty and inequality in developed nations, and so I think we need to make sure that any work to develop better data-gathering doesn’t slow down the work we know we have to do.”

He said the problem wasn’t going anywhere without proper funding of core public services, and he took the debate back to the Greens’ star policy this election – tax reform.

“I know that we all talk about better resourcing Pharmac… this just goes back to the reality that we do need better revenue-gathering tools to continue improving upon the funding that this government has put into Pharmac.”

More than anything, the debate showed while there are aspects of these parties that disagree on health policy, there is a large amount of overlap.

At one point Reti started talking about the need for more footpaths and green spaces to create an active culture, while Menéndez March nodded in agreement.

On the taxing of sugary drinks, all three agreed there were better, more targeted measures to employ or said the policy work hadn’t been done.

Reti said he was “mostly in the view of where the government of the day is” when it came to such fiscal measures.

All agreed there were barriers to access at the primary healthcare level, and there was no disagreement on the gravity of the problem.

For Dr Rosemary Hall, however, there wasn’t much to get excited about.

She said responses from all three seemed cagey and ultimately failed to deal with the issue of stigma.

“You can call people up and raise money for cancer,” she said. “But just try that with diabetes and people will say ‘oh well, they should just get off the couch’.”

It’s that kind of public perception, she said, that’s made it hard for people to speak up and agitate for increased funding.

And in a system where the squeaky wheel gets the grease, she fears the problem of diabetes is not being addressed.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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