A health union boss has unleashed a scathing attack on the Minister of Health, calling his political leadership "fiscally irresponsible" and without vision.

In a speech to the Hospital and Community Dentistry Conference in Napier this morning, Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Ian Powell accused Health Minister Dr David Clark of a "rambling, confused or nonsensical" leadership.

Clark responded after the speech saying the Government "inherited a series of workforce issues that will take time to address".

"Despite his many years as head of the ASMS, Dr Powell seems to believe long-standing workforce issues can somehow be solved overnight," Clark said.


Powell, a veteran of the senior doctors' union of 30 years who is retiring at the end of this year, slated Clark over missed opportunities, district health board deficits, "union-busting" and specialist doctor workforce shortages.

On the severe public hospital shortages, he said about 50 per cent of specialists were suffering high levels of burnout.

"... it is a political crime that the Government and Minister of Health have turned a blind eye to this travesty, displaying a callous disregard to the rights of patients and their whānau and to the wellbeing of the workforce."

The shortages meant specialists were unable to undertake duties such as quality assurance, supervision and mentoring, education and training, and their own professional development.

It also meant inadequate time for patient-centred care.

He said with the right engagement, culture and enough time created by increased workforce capacity, [specialists] hold the key to ensuring a better return for the health dollar by reducing duplication and improving delivery.

"But it can't achieve this when seriously overworked and burnt out. ASMS has reminded the minister of this several times but he continues to smile and ignore."

Health Minister Dr David Clark has been taken to task by Ian Powell. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Health Minister Dr David Clark has been taken to task by Ian Powell. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Powell said it wasn't right that when in opposition Clark was critical of DHB deficits, which were the highest ever on a combined $264m at March 31, blaming the then National Government.


"In Government, he is now pointing the finger at DHBs, even though their funding is little better in real terms that it was in the last year of the former government."

On "union-busting", he claimed Clark, through poor leadership, was responsible for the bitter and protracted dispute between the union for junior doctors and DHBs over safer working hours.

The dispute led to several extra junior doctor strikes that cost the country $20m, put many patients waiting for planned surgery at the back of the line and ended up at the Employment Relations Authority.

Powell said during the negotiations DHBs favoured a competing union to the Resident Doctors Association, whose "sole objective" was removing a hard-won contract clause for safer hours, and Clark let it happen.

He said Clark could have avoided the "disastrous conflict" by advising DHBs - through the Director General of Health - not to go down such an adversarial path.

"Not only did he argue that this was not his responsibility but further, in complete disregard of common sense, he diminished the significance of the issues.

"I have no doubt that despite the irony of a Labour-led government supporting union busting in this context, it was."

Clark, in response to Powell, said:

"As Health Minister I inherited a series of workforce issues that will take time to address. It takes years to train up doctors and nurses and as much as a decade or more for some specialists," Clark said.

"The Government is serious about strengthening our health workforce. We invested $2.8 billion (over four years) into DHBs in the Wellbeing Budget to support workforce growth in the face of a growing and ageing population. And we invested $147.1 million (over four years) for specific workforce initiatives," he said.

"It would not be appropriate at this time to comment on the Resident Doctors Association negotiations, which have been in facilitation. I am hopeful that will result in a resolution that works for all sides, including patients."