Hospitals cull waiting lists by thousands

By Martin Johnston

More than 35,000 people were removed from elective surgery waiting lists in one year - far more than previously disclosed - in the Government's "clean-up" of its hospital rationing system.

In the 12 months to October 31, more than 13,000 patients were sent back to their GP, after earlier being promised treatment within six months, or put on active review, the waiting list for patients who are not quite sick or disabled enough to qualify but who might be soon.

That number of patients told to go back to their doctors is more than four times higher than four years previously. In 2002, 3129 patients were taken off waiting lists.

National Party health spokesman Tony Ryall says the figures, obtained through his questions to Health Minister Pete Hodgson, reveal the extent of the misery for patients caused by last year's "waiting-list cull".

"This cruel cutting of patients promised operations simply has to stop," he said yesterday.

"This is a case of culling people to make waiting lists look shorter.

"Elective surgery is plunging deeper into crisis ..."

Mr Ryall claims that inefficiency and bureaucracy have sucked up much of Labour's $4.2 billion increase in health funding, leaving the elective surgery graph virtually flat since 2000.

Other figures he obtained show that more than 24,000 patients were removed from active review in the October year because of "changed patient circumstances", which can include patients deciding they do not need an operation, not replying to hospital letters, going private or having died.

The Auckland District Health Board removed 3288 in that category, far more than the 526 from active review or promised treatment that it sent back to GPs.

Mr Ryall did not have figures for the number sent back to their GP before even seeing a hospital specialist, but estimated it was around 20,000 last year.

The Government last year indicated that between 17,000 and 27,000 patients waiting for assessment or treatment were sent back to their GPs in the 12 months to the end of September.

It was under intense political pressure for much of the year while enforcing its policy that patients must not be put on assessment or treatment waiting lists if they would have to wait longer than six months on each.

The Health Ministry threatened health boards with financial penalties if they did not comply.

Mr Hodgson defends the policy as more transparent and fairer, ensuring the sickest or most disabled are treated first.

He rejects talk of a crisis, reasserting that although the number of patients receiving elective surgery declined from 2001 to 2005, the average operation's complexity has risen and the amount of day surgery - captured in national statistics for the first time since last July - is increasing. "There will never be enough taxpayer money to fund all types of surgery."

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