Health NZ West Coast says it intends to restore Reefton’s health services, including a full-time resident GP and reopening the Ziman House aged care wing.

But a community leader and Buller District councillor, Graeme Neylon, said repeated empty promises had undermined the faith of the Reefton community.

Health officials closed Ziman House in March 2022 โ€” leaving Reefton without an aged care facility and forcing 10 residents to find new homes.

Councillor Neylon said the latest assurances by Health NZ West Coast management, on December 8, that Ziman House will reopen appeared to be genuine, but residents had heard it all before.

“They also gave some genuine assurances nearly two years ago,” Councillor Neylon said.

“For me, they’ve lost credibility. They sound genuine, and I hope they are, but the credibility’s gone โ€” it’s just been too long,” he said.

However, Health NZ will partially reopen Ziman next month for limited day respite care.

Health NZ associate director of operations Phil Wheble said the agency was still “committed” to reopening Ziman House. He made the comments during a meeting called by Reefton Health Action Group earlier in December.

But he could give no real time frame, except to say it would depend on recruiting the required nurses.

At the same time, Wheble said Health NZ would be increasing broader primary care services in Reefton, and wanted a permanent resident GP in the town.

Wheble confirmed on December 18 there was one GP in place this year where Reefton was “their home site”.

“We are actively recruiting to fill this position for next year but, at this stage, we have not received any applications for this Reefton-based role,” he said.

The Reefton Health Action Group has floated the idea of a community trust taking over.

Wheble said there was no plan to cede Reefton’s medical centre to a private provider or trust.

“Our set-up is also very different to many places in New Zealand as we only have three private general practices on the West Coast, with all other GP services delivered by Te Whatu Ora.

“Locally, our core business is the delivery of health care including primary care services to all West Coast communities as close to home as possible.”

However, Health NZ wanted to work with the Reefton Health Action Group more broadly on health services in the area, in particular with aged care services.

Health NZ was particularly open to “a wellbeing approach” at Reefton, Wheble said.

It was also trying to boost a broad range of primary support services across the community to lessen the dependence on GPs and locums.

But health workforce recruitment remained “a well-documented challenge”.

“It is often more of a challenge recruiting into rural areas like the West Coast,” Wheble said.

Councillor Neylon said Health NZ needed to do better.

“Even though they might sound genuine now, we thought they sounded genuine when they started advertising for Reefton [nursing vacancies].”

A socially distanced Reefton crowd gather for a protest at the closure of Ziman House, in March 2022.

Recruiting the required 5.6 full-time equivalent nursing positions needed for Ziman always seemed to come to nothing or they were told available nurses were “needed more urgently in Greymouth”.

Councillor Neylon said he could see Reefton’s health facilities, including the medical practice, coming under the Westport-based Buller Health Trust in the future.

The later trust was formed under the umbrella of the Buller District Council.

Councillor Neylon said the Inangahua Community Board had also written to the previous Minister of Health to canvas what Health NZ might divest under the new structure โ€” noting the GP and aged care services run by HNZ on the West Coast were not usual.

Reefton would also be seeking a meeting with new Health Minister Shane Reiti “and see what his view is”, Councillor Neylon said.

By Brendon McMahon for Local Democracy Reporting (LDR)

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air