By MARTIN JOHNSTON and GREGG WYCHERLEY
The country's biggest health service is cutting cancer treatment as a chronic shortage of radiation staff reaches crisis point.
The Auckland District Health Board will announce at 11 am today the cut in services at Auckland Hospital, meaning anxious cancer patients may have to wait even longer.
The board may also have to consider sending some patients to Australia for treatment.
Officials and doctors would say little last night beyond stating that there would be a reduction in services because of a shortage of staff.
Board chiefs have complained to a parliamentary committee that the hospital has been paid less than some others for radiation treatment.
A Herald source confirmed that one of the hospital's five radiotherapy Machines was shut down on Monday because of the lack of radiation therapists.
Three of the department's staff had left recently, leaving fewer than 35 of the 48 positions filled.
Patients were waiting up to 12 weeks, the source said, "and that's totally unacceptable. It should be only four weeks [at most]."
The queues of cancer patients waiting longer than four weeks have spiralled in the past year because of severe national shortages of radiation oncologists and therapists, growing numbers of patients, and the need for new radiation machines.
At Auckland Hospital by the end of January, 64 per cent of patients were waiting more than four weeks.
Nationally by the end of February, nearly half the patients were waiting more than four weeks, and more than half of that group were waiting more than six weeks.
Auckland Hospital is so desperate to hire radiation therapists that it sent staff on a recruiting drive to South Africa and Britain last year.
One new worker was meant to start last month and job offers had been made to others, the hospital's head of radiation oncology, Dr John Childs, said in February.
But Deborah Sidebotham, the Radiation Therapists Union's senior advocate, said last night that there was little hope the overseas drive would solve the problem.
The Cancer Society says a major pay rise is needed.
Dr Childs said last night that there were "a number of initiatives that we have been putting in place" to deal with the effects of the staff shortage, but he would not elaborate.
"There are a couple of things I'm hoping we will have confirmed before the [11 am] briefing."
A spokesman for Health Minister Annette King said last night that she was not aware of the Auckland board's looming cuts.
He said the nationwide pressure on radiation therapy services had been building for several years and the Government and health services were doing their best to solve it.
Asked if the Government needed to put in more money, he reiterated that it was acceptable to send patients to Australia, as Waikato Hospital had done, if they could not be treated here within the recommended time.
National's health spokesman, Roger Sowry, said Mrs King must provide money for hospitals to send patients to Australia.
He said long-term solutions needed to address recruiting, training and pay rates - all of which required more money. "Obviously we're going to have to have our pay rates in line with what these people can expect in other countries."
Hospitals were going to be "squeezed beyond the pale" with the minimal extra money expected in the Budget.
Mr Sowry said that when Mrs King was in Opposition she had pledged to fund the health system properly.
"She said the buck stops with her - so let's see her deliver now."