Children aged under-13 are now being charged $10 during business hours at Whanganui Hospital's accident and medical centre.

The charge for the formerly free service was introduced by Whanganui Accident and Medical (WAM) last week and it has sparked protest.

Some Whanganui residents have been outraged by the added medical costs, others frustrated with a lack of understanding behind the new charge.

On Facebook, Brendan Wilks said he didn't understand how the $10 fee was legal.

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"I thought the Government policy said visits for under-13s were meant to get access to free doctor's visits regardless," Mr Wilks said.

Jay Jay Bloor also didn't think it was fair.

"I rang up to make my daughter an appointment two weeks ago and she was booked in for the next available appointment ... 21st of August. At the time over a month for an appointment," Ms Bloor said.

Labour candidate for Whanganui Steph Lewis said $10 didn't sound like much, but by the time you added in prescription and travel costs it all added up.

"It puts more pressure on families who are struggling to make ends meet and to keep a roof over their head. This new charge is a real concern."

Whanganui Regional Health Network (WRHN) communications co-ordinator Karen Veldhoen said the new fee applied only to children under-13 who visited WAM for a medical reason between 8am and 5pm.

"Visits to WAM are still free for children under-13 who present accident and injury because their care is funded under ACC."

All after-hour visits to WAM are also still free for children under-13.

"But patients who visit WAM with medical conditions - which refer to infections, diseases, general health concerns - will be charged."

Ms Veldhoen said there were several reasons the fee was introduced, including excessive wait times at WAM, lack of staff available and a need to encourage continuity of care.

"WAM provides episodic care - that is, it addresses the one issue that you present urgently with.

"Continuity of care for children is very important and that is what general practice offers, which means seeing the same clinical team every time, with a full medical history available."

In 2014, the Government announced it would allocate $90 million over three years to implement a "zero fee" scheme for children under-13, which still applies.

General practices (GPs) could choose whether or not they would provide a free service to under-13s but those that did so received an additional subsidy from the Government.

Ms Veldhoen said nearly every Whanganui GP provided a free service for under-13s.
The Chronicle asked the election candidates for Whanganui what they thought of the charge.

National candidate Harete Hipango said it was not unreasonable. "It is a reality of balancing business with meeting community need. Everything these days is not as free as we would all want it to be. The free service with GPs is funded.

"If people wish to source GP or medical attention elsewhere that is not free, then the choice is clear."

Green candidate Nicola Patrick thought it was a blunt tool and would unduly impact people on low incomes.

"We're having a national conversation about poverty and the impacts on the health of our children are key.

"Increasing costs is not the way to take care of children for those on low incomes."

Ms Lewis said waiting times at WAM were high but there was a way around it, and government funding was a huge part of that.

"WAM is seeing a lot of people who could be treated by their GPs but the problem is that people can't afford GPs at the moment and it often takes a few days to book an appointment.

"We need to be doing more in attracting and attaining doctors to come to the provinces so that people that are not going to WAM are going to their GPs."

Whanganui electorate chairman for New Zealand First Reg Skipworth said GPs were so full up that the extra charge would only escalate the problem.

"The district health board needs to take a lead in this - WAM needs more doctors and that comes down to funding from the health board. My question is: What is the health board going to do if the problem persists?" Mr Skipworth said.

Whanganui District Health Board pointed out that WAM had nothing to do with the health board.

Whanganui Regional Health Network chief executive Judith MacDonald said the issue was not that WAM was underfunded but there was a political issue with primary care being underfunded.

"We are monitoring the GPs intensively and we know that GPs are referring patients to WAM ... we are telling them that three or two or one of your people turned up to WAM because they couldn't get to see their GP.

"We are trying to reshape the system, but it is early days."