Lab test fees hit elderly
By RUTH HILL - The Dominion Post | Monday, 03 December 2007

Elderly patients will suffer the most if other district health boards follow Wellington's example and start charging for laboratory tests ordered by private specialists, doctors say.

Since Capital and Coast and Hutt Valley district health boards stopped picking up the tab for private patients last November, patients have been billed more than $1.6 million. Some have paid more than $1600 each for diagnostic tests that are free elsewhere.

Patients under private care paid for by ACC, and those who have tests ordered by GPs, dentists and midwives, continue to have their lab tests covered by the boards.

Some specialists told The Dominion Post the new system had led to confusion, and patient care could be compromised.

District health boards' evaluation of the process will be made public this week.

Medical Association chairman Peter Foley said he was concerned at moves by South Island boards to introduce a system that had cost Wellington people dearly.

"We believe this move is likely to particularly impact on the elderly - a vulnerable group who have a greater need for health services then the general population, and which is already under pressure financially."

Policy that affected the whole population should be set by central government, he said. "We need to have national consistency, and you can only have that with national debate that involves patients."

Five South Island boards - Southland, Otago, West Coast, South Canterbury and Canterbury - have been considering the proposal, which they estimate could save $3 million a year.

The boards argue that when public health money is used to "subsidise" the private system, public services are affected.

However, Dr Foley said private patients were essentially being asked to pay twice, having already paid through their taxes. "Many people who go to private specialists are neither wealthy nor insured - they are just unable to wait for assessment or treatment under the public system."

Any savings made by DHBs would be offset by increased pressure on public waiting lists as patients who previously might have used private specialists found they could not afford it.

Pathologists have also been critical of regional inequalities in laboratory services.

From here .