Staffing shortages at New Zealand’s biggest sexual health organisation have meant clinics across the country are already booked up months in advance.

Wellingtonians are having to wait until February for appointments. Those in Auckland and Hamilton are having to wait until the end of January.

Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond said the reason for this was the “hugely high” staff turnover seen this year.

“We’re really struggling to recruit, especially in Wellington,” Edmond said.

“It’s because there are some significant pay parity issues for our staff, and people are leaving to go to Te Whatu Ora roles, which are much better paid.

About 80% of Family Planning’s consultations are with a nurse, so when the organisation cannot retain or recruit new staff, the services are disrupted and wait times are pushed out

One client told RNZ that when they called Family Planning to book an appointment in early November, the Wellington clinic was already booked up until February.

Edmond said these were the longest waiting times that they could remember; it was an uncommon situation for the organisation.

A number of clinics have also had to close for several days this year due to the lack of available staff. Wellington’s central city clinic had to close for five days in August and three days in September.

Across the country, Family Planning clinics were closed for a total of 64 days during August.

“We just don’t have the people to work, so we try to rotate staff around the Wellington region to make sure we can offer services in Porirua and Lower Hutt. It’s less than ideal,” Edmond said.

But there was good news, Edmond said, with a new batch of recruited staff starting in the new year.

“We should be starting to look at improving those waiting times, but we will definitely have an issue until early February.”

Young patients

The largest percentage of Family Planning’s clients are under the age of 25.

Edmond said about one in six of the young people (16 to 19 years old) seen for consultations did not have another regular health provider, one in five of them did not know where else to go to get contraception.

“When we are forced to close clinics because we don’t have staff to open them, it is these young people that are at most risk of unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection,” she said.

“Many women are suffering from all sorts of issues, so waiting a couple of months is no good for anyone.”

Fight for pay parity

Family Planning is a part of a collection of community healthcare organisations working to campaign for pay parity for their staff.

The majority of their funding is from Te Whatu Ora, but that is also where most of its staff are leaving – enticed understandably, by the higher pay.

“Our nurses are working at the top of their scope, so we do a lot of staff training and, unfortunately, that means they’re a good recruit for Te Whatu Ora,” said Edmond.

“So we essentially are training staff to go to Te Whatu Ora.”

She said she would like her staff to be on even footing.

The collective have written to Health Minister Shane Reti requesting a meeting to discuss pay parity.

“We’re hopeful with the new government we will make some progress,” Edmond said.

“It can’t come too soon for us, we really are struggling to meet the demand.”

Lack of funding

The last outstanding funding boost the organisation received was in 2021. Before that, Family Planning had not received a funding increase in 10 years.

“We got the standard 5% increase for the beginning of this year, which all providers got but other than that we’ve had nothing since 2021,” Edmond said.

“We’ve got some really amazing staff who are doing what they can, but it’s tough.”

Family Planning has 30 clinics around the country of varying sizes, with several outreach clinics too. This year, more than 100,000 people were seen, with the most common service being contraception.

“We have been around for 85-plus years and we’ve been providing non-judgmental, excellent sexual and reproductive health services for most of those years,” Edmond said.

“It’s important for people to have a choice of who they go to, and because Family Planning staff are specialist nurses and doctors with extra expertise, you can get great care from people that are doing that work day in and day out.”

Health Minister Dr Shane Reti said he was expecting advice from officials on priorities for the primary and community care sector, including issues such as pay parity and pay equity in the new year.

“I value the extremely hard work of nurses employed by community healthcare organisations around New Zealand, and the difference they make every day to the lives of those they support,” he said.

By Samantha Mythen of rnz.co.nz

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