The loss of a talented Maori GP fluent in te reo and able to connect with his Maori patients is a tragedy, an iwi leader says.
GP Lance O'Sullivan resigned from Kaitaia-based Maori health provider Te Hauora o Te Hiku o Te Ika two weeks ago and is now on three months' "gardening leave". He is unable to speak out until his contract ends on August 10.
There has been speculation that his public comments about poverty and poor housing had annoyed Government funders, but the real reasons for his departure are thought to include his insistence on treating patients who couldn't pay.
The outspoken GP has openly criticised his employers' policy of turning away patients with no money via his columns in the Northland Age and at a recent doctors' conference in the Hokianga.
Te Runanga o Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said losing Dr O'Sullivan was a tragedy.
Northland's rural Maori communities were struggling with high deprivation, isolation, increased costs and minimal empathy between medical practitioners and patients - but Dr O'Sullivan was able to bridge those gaps. "To have one of our own become a doctor and be willing to come home, for far less than he could earn overseas, is a great thing for us.
He understands our culture and our needs."
Mr Piripi said it was an employment matter so he did not want to interfere. He would, however, meet Dr O'Sullivan and other members of the runanga in the next few days to look for ways of keeping him in the Far North. He would also be talking to the runanga-appointed member of Te Hauora's board.
Mana Party leader and Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira said Dr O'Sullivan was loved by his patients because he offered something they had never had before: "A Maori doctor who understands and cares about what makes Maori people tick, who speaks the reo, and who clearly has their best interests at the core of his being."
Dr O'Sullivan had challenged the normal way of doing things by using the media to criticise failures in Government policies, as well as failures in the organisation he worked for.
Mr Harawira suspected some managers within Te Hauora struggled with Dr O'Sullivan's approach. Rather than trying to crush that difference, Te Hauora could have used Dr O'Sullivan's leadership and "celebrity status" to capture attention and force authorities to put funding into previously ignored areas.
Mr Harawira said it was sometimes necessary for a renegade and his family to part ways - but he hoped Dr O'Sullivan and Te Hauora would get back together "for the benefit of the people".
One of Dr O'Sullivan's patients, who did not wish to be named, told National Radio she had been turned away by the clinic because she had no money that day. Dr O'Sullivan saw her anyway and identified a serious health problem, but the receptionist warned her she wouldn't be seen again until she'd paid her bill.
In another case a father brought in a sick child for treatment. Dr O'Sullivan noticed the father was also unwell and treated him, although he could not pay. Dr O'Sullivan was born in Auckland and schooled at Hato Petera College. After training at Auckland Medical School he worked in Rotorua, then moved to the Far North.
Te Hauora o Te Hiku o Te Ika Trust chairman Dr Bruce Gregory said the trust had asked Dr O'Sullivan to reconsider his resignation but he had declined to do so.