Treatment at New Zealand's first private radiation therapy clinic will be insurance-funded for most members of the country's largest health insurer, Southern Cross.
It is hoped this will shorten waiting lists at public hospitals, but it will push private premiums up.
Auckland Radiation Oncology, at MercyAscot Hospital's Epsom site, receives its first patient today to begin treatment planning.
Treatment numbers will be built up gradually to ensure the clinic's systems work well.
St George's Hospital in Christchurch is planning to open the country's second private clinic next year.
The Auckland clinic is a $19 million joint venture between MercyAscot and the hospitals division of Southern Cross.
It has two linear accelerator therapy machines and seven radiation therapists.
Southern Cross group chief executive Ian McPherson said the insurer had decided to provide cover for its members at Auckland Radiation Oncology after reaching agreement with the clinic on treatment prices and clinical guidelines for receiving radiation therapy.
He said the health insurance plans of most of the organisation's more than 840,000 members were included in the new cover, which would add about 2 per cent to the prices of those policies.
He could not give details of which policies were included or excluded, but said members who wanted to know could call 0800-800-181.
Dr McPherson said Southern Cross would also consider providing cover for treatment at the Christchurch clinic.
MercyAscot has talked to officials at the Auckland District Health Board about treating some of its patients but no deal has been signed.
"As of today we don't have any formal contract with them to treat any of their patients," said MercyAscot chief executive Andrew Wong.
"We have had a number of meetings with the DHB and we want to be as open and co-operative with them as we can be."
The DHB resumed sending some patients to Australia last month, and is also sending some to Waikato Hospital because of an increase in the Auckland Hospital waiting list for non-urgent cases.
It blamed this on machinery failure, staff shortages and a big increase in the number of patients needing urgent treatment.
Dr Wong was unable to give the price of treatment at Auckland Radiation Oncology because it would vary so widely between patients.
The clinic would treat mainly prostate and breast cancers.
The linear accelerators chosen by Auckland Radiation Oncology were the most modern in New Zealand and provided for advanced treatment methods, he said.
"The result is improved clinical confidence, enabling more aggressive treatment of tumours while minimising damage to surrounding healthy tissue."
Up to 500 patients a year were expected at first, rising to 750 to 800 in the medium term, he said.
The clinic had space for two more linear accelerators if the demand warranted it.
HOW IT WORKS
* New Zealand's first private radiation therapy clinic opens today at MercyAscot in Epsom.
* It expects to treat 500 patients a year at first, rising to 800.
* Most patients insured by Southern Cross will be covered but will pay an extra 2 per cent in premiums.
* Southern Cross members wanting to check their cover can ring 0800-800-181.