A major Auckland social agency is telling Westies who fall ill at night or on weekends to go straight to hospital rather than fork out big bucks at private medical centres.
West Auckland's Te Whanau O Waipareira has taken out newspaper advertisements and erected billboards in the community urging people who can't afford "outrageous" after-hours costs to go to their nearest public hospital's emergency department for free instead.
It comes as health boards across the North Island, who are short on beds, plead for people to stay away from hospital emergency departments unless it's a matter of dire urgency.
But the community organisation says sick whanau are jeopardising their health putting off vital healthcare because they can't afford the nearly $100 bill to see a doctor after hours.
Waipareira chief executive John Tamihere said the cost of an unplanned visit to private medical centres at night was prohibitive for many families.
It costs $92 for an unsubsidised medical appointment at Lincoln Rd's White Cross After Hours Medical Centre between 6pm and 8am.
"We cannot have whanau not seeking medical care because they don't have the money," said Tamihere.
"That's why I urge whanau, if you are feeling unwell go directly to the Waitakere Hospital's Accident and Emergency. I would expect that at the A&E they will be treated with respect and quality."
But Waitemata District Health Board says if people turn up at hospital not seriously ill or facing an emergency will mean those with "real emergencies" may end up waiting for treatment.
"Waitakere residents should only present to the Waitakere Hospital emergency department if they have a medical emergency or are seriously ill," said the health board's funding director Dr Debbie Holdsworth.
"Unnecessary presentations to the emergency department will have a significant impact on the care we can provide to people who are seriously ill or injured. This may include slower response times for real emergencies and longer waiting times."
Tamihere said people had approached the trust telling them the cost of an after-hours visit had stopped them from seeking medical treatment.
They were forced to wait until the following morning or the start of a new week for a cheaper medical alternative.
"We cannot allow this to continue and we don't want a whanau member - or anyone for that matter - to die or be hospitalised because they didn't have the money for proper immediate medical treatment."
Tamihere said the Waitemata District Health Board had spent millions on a new emergency department, which had opened last year.
Holdsworth said the emergency department needed to be used responsibly with people seeking the most appropriate form of care for their need. This would usually be their family doctor or urgent care clinic, she said.
Family doctor visits and urgent care clinics were free for children and heavily subsidised for seniors and those with high medical needs.
In recent weeks health boards across the North Island have urged sick people to seek private treatment if they fall ill because they have no spare hospital beds even before winter started.
Hawke's Bay, Waikato and MidCentral District Health Boards are urging only those with acute emergencies to come to hospital.
Last week Waikato Hospital was in crisis mode as dozens of patients waited in the clogged emergency department for a bed, and surgeries were postponed.
Yesterday Palmerston North Hospital's emergency department was at capacity and the hospital full.
Nearly 130 people had turned up over the weekend for treatment at the emergency department. The hospital said many were non-urgent cases.
Everyone else should seek medical care from their family doctor, medical centre, pharmacy or to call Healthline.