Skin cancer patients across the Bay of Plenty are scrambling to find money for their surgery, amid fears lives could be at risk after a successful treatment scheme ran out of government funding.
The Western Bay of Plenty Primary Health Organisation (PHO) began managing skin-care surgery in the region this year, following a successful two-year pilot trial run by the Bay of Plenty District Health Board.
Under the project, people needing minor skin surgery to remove cancerous growths, including melanomas, paid only for their GP consultation fee.
Sources said the pilot project was a huge success, trimming the region's elective surgery waiting list by up to 30 per cent.
However, $800,000 given to the PHO to run the programme ran out at the end of May, leaving Bay skin-cancer patients having to find thousands of dollars to fund their own operations.
The number of people waiting for surgery is understood to be in the hundreds. Some in the medical community believe delay could put lives at risk.
Among those needing surgery is 81-year old Joyce Nobbs.
The Tauranga pensioner was diagnosed with skin cancer on her face two years ago, and had been undergoing treatment, paying only her consultation fee.
Mrs Nobbs' treatment was stopped in March to allow her to undergo a hip replacement, but when she went to resume the cancer treatment this month, she was told she would have to pay $1200-$1500 to have a cancerous growth removed from her nose, as government funding for the procedure was no longer available.
Mrs Nobbs said the cancer on her nose was particularly bad, and needed to be taken out.
"If I don't get it removed soon, I will lose part of my nose. It has to come out."
She was "absolutely devastated" by the situation.
Mrs Nobbs said she had written to Tauranga MP Simon Bridges, Health Minister Tony Ryall and Prime Minister John Key to urge them to reinstate the funding.
Tauranga MP Simon Bridges said the government bulk-funded the country's DHBs, but did not direct what services they provided with the money.
He understood the funding for the skin cancer surgery may have been "redirected", but intended to write to BOPDHB chief executive Phil Cammish to bring Mrs Nobbs' situation to his attention.
When the Bay of Plenty Times approached Mrs Nobbs' GP, Franz Strydom for comment, he said he was contractually bound not to talk to media until after June 30.
However, he confirmed he was unable to complete Mrs Nobbs' surgery after the funding ran out.
He said the situation meant Mrs Nobbs and other patients were "in limbo" waiting for their surgery.
Western Bay of Plenty PHO general manager Roger Taylor confirmed some operations were on hold while the DHB and PHO continued with negotiations towards an agreement, which included a priority schedule to determine which skin cancer cases needed to be treated first.
"There's a bit of a hiatus at the moment, while those negotiations are being finalised.
"It means there's some surgery in the meantime that can't be done by primary health."
He asked those people waiting for operations to be patient.
Mr Taylor said any new agreement with the DHB would likely run to June 2010, but it was important the funding was used to carry out cancer operations with the highest priority.
"They key thing is that the money pays for the more critical surgeries first."
However, Mr Taylor said there were limitations on what could be achieved.
"There's no way that any district health board in this country can afford to fund all the minor surgery which will have to be done on skin cancers ... particularly in the Bay of Plenty."
He said the Bay had a higher rate of skin cancer than some other parts of the country because of the region's higher proportion of older people, high sunshine levels, and the number of people involved in outdoor jobs.
DHB spokeswoman Carol Wollaston said the skin cancer service, in line with government policy, had been devolved to the PHO.
She said the DHB intended to work with the PHO to ensure the programme continued successfully.