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The Counties Manukau District Health Board is "exploring" the complete private provision of its taxpayer-funded elective urology service.

The Green Party and the senior doctors' union consider the idea to be a form of privatisation and are concerned that if implemented, it would erode the capacity of public hospitals.

Already about 15 per cent of the elective surgery funded by Counties is provided by the private health sector.

The board's 2010/2011 annual plan, which has been signed off by Health Minister Tony Ryall, says: "... the DHB will be exploring options for providing elective urology services through a private provider, with the aim of having a definitive, revised programme in place in the next 12 months.

"Currently these services are provided predominantly through Auckland DHB."

The board's communications manager, Lauren Young, said yesterday that talks were under way on the future of its urology service.

"We are looking at the long-term needs of our region and if the Auckland DHB doesn't have the capacity to meet our needs in future - they are meeting them now - that's when we will consider private [provision].

"Our preferred position will be to have our own urology service in concert with ADHB to service the needs of the whole region."

The senior doctors' union executive director, Ian Powell, said the Government's policy had been to use contracting-out to supplement public hospital capacity. And the commitment to adding 20 elective surgery theatres nationally was about building public capacity. "This seems to be going in the other direction."

Greens health spokesman Kevin Hague said contracting out a large service such as urology would encourage the migration of urologists from the public sector to the private.

"That would erode the public sector's ability to provide urology services."

Mr Hague, the former chief executive of the West Coast DHB, said its urology service was provided by the private sector, but that was done because the service previously provided by Canterbury DHB was inconsistent.

"It's horses for courses. Sometimes it's the right thing to do.

"But given the volume of elective urological services at Counties Manukau, this is not adding to capacity, when effectively it did on the West Coast."

Urologists are involved in caring for patients with conditions such as:
* Kidney stones.
* Prostate cancer.
* Urinary tract infections.