Auckland DHBs drop disability reps from advisory committees

Auckland’s three district health boards have dropped disability community representatives from all advisory committees - including those specifically mandated to advocate for disability rights.

The decision, labelled as “insincere” by one community advocate, comes as the three boards - Auckland, Waitemata and Counties Manukau - consider combining advisory committees.

While community representatives were supposed to be appointed in February, this deadline has now been pushed out to the end of the year. 

According to the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act, district health boards (DHBs) are required to have three advisory committees which provide guidance on disability issues, health funding and services, and the performance of local hospitals. While all three Auckland DHBs have individual hospital advisory committees, Auckland and Waitemata DHBs have shared advisory committees for community and public health, and disability support, respectively. Committees for Counties Manukau remain separate.

Previously, the disability support advisory committees, and the community and public health committees - set up specifically to advise on issues affecting members of the public - have been made up of a mix of DHB officials and people from the community. Community representatives were selected to ensure a range of perspectives from various groups using health services were considered.  

However, since meetings reconvened in the New Year, no one other than members of the DHB have been appointed to the committees. Furthermore, two members of the disabled community who had served on committees in Counties Manukau, and Auckland and Waitemata respectively, had to “chase up” board staff to confirm what had happened, despite 15 years' combined service to the DHBs between them.

“It’s pretty insincere,” said disability rights advocate, and previous Counties Manukau community representative, Ezekiel Robson of the boards' actions.

Robson, who was first approached to be a community representative in 2005, served on both the disability support, and community and public health committees for Counties Manukau DHB. Like board members, community representatives have three-year terms. They are reappointed after each local body election.

“I’d spent 12 years as a community rep, and for them to not even notify me of what was going on - it’s just unacceptable."

- Ezekiel Robson, disability rights advocate

According to Robson - who is visually impaired - there had never been any formal reappointment process after previous elections, with his position “rolling” over into another term marked by an email notifying members of upcoming meeting dates for the next year.

Initially, last year’s October election seemed no different. A meeting for the disability advisory committee took place in November, and it was agreed to reconvene in the New Year after new board members settled in.

In December, Dr Lester Levy, chairman of all three Auckland DHBs, sent an email to community representatives, board members and relevant staff advising that appointments for committees would be finalised at a board meeting in February.

At that point, dates for meetings scheduled to the end of November 2017 was sent out. All four community representatives, including Robson, received the year-long schedule. 

However, in early February, a round of emails from the secretary of the disability support, and community and public health advisory committees advised that the previously-scheduled meetings had either been cancelled or postponed.

 Ezekiel Robson says it's "unacceptable" that he and other disabled community reps weren't even notified of the DHBs' decision to drop them. Photo: supplied

Confused by the barrage of communications, Robson sent an email to the committee’s secretary to clarify exactly when meetings were due to be held.

On March 6, he received an answer:

“Hi Ezekiel.

You shouldn’t have any of the CPHAC [community and public health committee] meetings for 2017 as your name is not on any of the invitations at my end.”

“It was just ... so disappointing,” Robson said.

“I’d spent 12 years as a community rep, and for them to not even notify me of what was going on - it’s just unacceptable,” the Manurewa resident said.

After another round of email exchanges, Robson received a letter from the Counties Manukau DHB in mid-April acknowledging his “service to the Board’s work”.

“One in four Kiwis have a disability, and Auckland is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on earth: it’s important all voices are heard at the DHB decision making table.”

- Human Rights Commission

He and the other former community representatives - including those who served on committees at the Auckland and Waitemata DHBs - were also blindsided by news that they had not yet been replaced - and that current advisory committee members were all from within the DHB.

Dairne Kirton, a former Auckland and Waitemata disability support advisor, assumed she had not been recalled to the committee because it wanted fresh input.

"[It was] the end of my term, and also being a long-term member [of the committee]," she told Newsroom. "I was appalled we had all been let go and not replaced by other disabled advocates and that our knowledge and contribution was no longer valued."

“How is this partnership with disabled people, and ensuring health care systems we will access serve disabled people and their families," Kirton quipped.

The Human Rights Commission, which would not comment on whether the DHBs’ actions aligned with New Zealand’s recently-renewed Disability Strategy, said it was “essential for all health and disability service providers” to ensure all New Zealanders were included in discussions and decisions about services they used.

“One in four Kiwis have a disability, and Auckland is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on earth: it’s important all voices are heard at the DHB decision making table,” commission spokeswoman Christine Ammunson said in an email.

The commission would also not be drawn on any discussion about whether the DHBs' actions were in keeping with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which New Zealand signed 10 years ago and ratified a year later. 

Meanwhile, Auckland-wide DHB chair Levy, who was unavailable to speak directly due to travel commitments, said in an email that “co-opted” committee members would be appointed once the DHBs had decided whether committees would be combined across all three Auckland DHBs.

He refused to comment on why the disability advisory support committee for Counties Manukau had met only once this year - compared to the three meetings held over the same period in the previous two years.

“It is expected that a decision will be finalised and community representatives appointed before the end of this calendar year,” Levy said.

***

Dr Lester Levy's full email statement to Newsroom:

“Across the three Metro Auckland DHBs, our commitment to appointing community representatives to our Board committees is undiminished. We are currently in the process of determining whether it makes sense to combine various committees of the three boards and, if so, when and how this could be done. When we have resolved this, we will proceed with the appointment of co-opted committee members because it is important that we continue to have diversity of thought and opinion. We have always had co-opted members on our Board committees and always will. It is expected that a decision will be finalised and community representatives appointed before the end of this calendar year.”

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