Ryman Healthcare had a constant battle during the nation's lockdown to get residents and staff tested for covid-19, even though its residents are among the most vulnerable to the virus.
"It has been too much of a fight to get testing," said Ryman chief executive Gordon MacLeod.
Chair "David Kerr and I talked about it every day for probably two months. We were so frustrated," MacLeod told BusinessDesk.
Ryman operates 36 retirement villages around New Zealand, caring for nearly 10,500 elderly people, most of whom are well over 80.
"Our perspective is as simple as this: older people were identified as being at the highest risk" and that was even more so for those living at retirement villages because of the comorbidity factor.
So Ryman wanted to do everything it could to keep covid-19 out of its villages.
But the company effectively came up against a brick wall with both the Ministry of Health and district health boards insisting they would only test those exhibiting symptoms.
That was despite the fact that it became obvious early in the pandemic that many people with the virus, and who were spreading it to others, were asymptomatic – MacLeod puts the number of such people at 30 percent to 35 percent.
Another factor is that in many elderly people their immune system no longer functions, so they just don't get fevers, one of the key symptoms required by officials before they would allow people to be tested.
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"We were just trying every avenue we could think of, including writing to the Director-General of Health," he said.
They were unable to secure a meeting with Ashley Bloomfield and couldn't persuade the officials they did meet to back down.
"We were told repeatedly by the Prime Minister – Jacinda Ardern – and the director-general, test, test, test and there was plenty of testing" and yet Ryman was unable to get people tested.
The company had 25 residents who had left its villages for hospital treatment and who wanted to return to their homes but couldn't because of the DHB's attitudes.
MacLeod said the hospitals kept saying to Ryman, trust us, this patient doesn't have covid-19, even though they hadn't been tested.
Even before the lockdown, Ryman closed all its villages to visitors as part of its efforts to keep the virus out and it required all new or returning residents to go into quarantine for 14 days but it also wanted them all to be tested.
"It was very difficult to get action on it. In the end DHBs quietly did the test" after a few bursts of adverse publicity.
That included the case of 93-year-old Sylvia Heaven, a resident of Ryman's Shona McFarlane village in Lower Hutt who had gone into Hutt Hospital for a skin graft two days before the national lockdown.
In the end, the hospital backed down and tested her after her daughter went to the media on her behalf.
While the Australian authorities took the same stance on testing, unlike in NZ, they did allow Ryman to pay for tests done at private clinics. MacLeod said the company paid about $8,000 for tests in Australia – it owns three retirement villages in Melbourne.
In NZ, "We asked the ministry directly and offered to pay for it" and would have only needed access to testing systems, but the answer was still no.
"I don't think anyone on the street would be able to understand that," MacLeod said.
New Zealand had direct experience of how deadly the virus could be once it spread through a facility housing the elderly. Christchurch rest home Rosewood became the nation's deadliest covid-19 cluster and 12 of the 22 deaths in this country were linked to it.
In New York, which has suffered the worst outbreak in the United States, Governor Andrew Cuomo admitted his state made "a fatal error" in requiring long-term care facilities to accept people being discharged from hospital.
That policy was reversed after the New York Times reported in early May that nearly 30,000 rest home residents and staff had died after being infected with covid-19.
Europe had a similar experience and up to half the deaths throughout the hard-hit continent have been of rest home residents.
Ryman has another beef with NZ's government – its failure to reimburse the aged care sector for the added costs of dealing with the virus.
A group of chief financial officers within the sector had estimated the pandemic had cost the sector about $80 million for things ranging from additional security, additional cleaning, paying staff extra money and paying for additional personal protective equipment.
However, the government has reimbursed the sector only $26 million, MacLeod said.
That's about enough to pay for two cups of coffee a day for NZ's most vulnerable group.
"I was really disheartened and disappointed with that, particularly as it was occurring at the same time as testing was being denied. I just couldn't understand it."