Big spend on vaccines, but preventable illness short-changed.

A massive gap in public health service purchasing, at just 2.1 percent of the health budget, shows other core public health investment has been dwarfed by the needed $1.4 billion Covid-19 vaccination rollout.

The chair of the Public Health Infrastructure Expert Panel for Health Coalition Aotearoa, Dr David Galler says the paltry $507 million is a ‘head-in-sand’ approach to public health funding and will not stall the rise of major health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease which are currently overwhelming our health system.

“Just as we are investing heavily in prevention through the Covid-19 vaccination programme, prevention is better than cure for the whole field of public health. It’s the most cost-effective approach, and it makes health outcomes fairer for all New Zealanders, particularly tangata whenua.”

New Zealand faces a wave of type-2 diabetes with 228,000 people having the preventable disease now and that figure set to double by 2040. Health Coalition Aotearoa Chair Professor Boyd Swinburn says this Budget does not address decades of under-funding public health to reduce preventable diseases.

“Tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food cause about one third of healthy life years lost in New Zealand every year. The obvious, smart thing to do is to invest in prevention. A status quo of under-investment in prevention is setting up the healthcare system for even more pressure.”

HCA is calling for the core public health prevention budget outside of the COVID-19 response to be lifted to five percent of the total health budget. “I am sure New Zealanders will think that just five percent spent on prevention is a gross-underinvestment, but it would at least be a start,” Swinburn said.

In 2019 public health service purchasing was estimated to be $35 million short of meeting cost pressures alone. Leaders have woken up to why public health is so important for our wellbeing goals but even in last year’s Covid Budget, public health purchasing was budgeted for just 2.3 per cent of overall spending.

“While there are good, specific new initiatives this year, like bowel and cervical cancer screening, it’s disappointing to see overall public health investment stagnate outside the Covid-19 response,” Swinburn said. “Just as we are investing heavily in the Covid-19 vaccination programme, prevention is better than cure for the whole field of public health. We now need to apply the same principle to other preventable deadly diseases.

Health Coalition Aotearoa called on all political parties to progressively increase public health funding to just 5% of the health budget, prior to last year’s election. Historically, core public health funding in New Zealand is as low as 2-3% of Vote Health.

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