After spending at least three years on the immediate skills shortage list, mental health nurses from overseas are no longer being sought by Immigration New Zealand to address urgent staff shortages.
The move comes amid concerns of inadequate staffing levels across the country, with the New Zealand Nurses Organisation believing the health system is underfunded by $1.85 billion.
The immediate skills shortage list, compiled by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (Mbie), allows employers to look overseas to fill vacancies that cannot be staffed locally.
Despite reports of staffing shortfalls, the mental health nurse role was removed following a review in February.
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There are currently 25 mental health nurse vacancies across the Capital and Coast, Wairarapa, and Hutt Valley district health boards.
Nigel Fairley, general manager of 3DHB mental health, addictions and intellectual disability services – a joint initiative between the three health boards – said with a total workforce of 500, they continually needed to recruit as part of normal staff turnover.
Ministry of Health chief nurse Jane O’Malley acknowledged demand for mental health services had increased, but said nursing numbers had also risen.
In the year to May 2016, O’Malley said Mbie issued 15 mental health nurse work visas.
If health boards were unable to recruit locally, they could still make a case to look offshore, she said. But recruiting experienced nurses was still an issue in some parts of the country.
Nurses Organisation chief executive Memo Musa said many nurses in the mental health sector felt staff numbers were insufficient.
“We want to see more nurses at all levels recruited into mental health, more emphasis and implementing of safe staffing, including the skill mix and experience of staff,” he said.
“Our members are telling us that, in some DHBs, staffing levels are inadequate to enable them to provide timely care to people accessing services.
“Information from the Nursing Council shows that, in proportion, the registered nurse workforce in mental health was lower in 2016 compared to 2007.”
Nurses’ concerns were echoed by the Public Service Association’s Simon Oosterman, who helped launch the Yes We Care campaign calling for greater Government funding for the health sector.
“We have a serious retention problem in mental health. There is a large churn of new staff leaving within a couple of years, because of negative experiences including burnout and assaults,” he said.
“We need to properly resource mental health and make it an attractive place to work so we can develop an experienced local workforce.”
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman recently trumpeted the addition of more than 600 specialist nurses between 2011 and 2016, expanding the nursing workforce from 3583 to 4206.
“We’ve increased mental health and addiction services funding from $1.1 billion in 2008-09 to over $1.4b for 2015-16. But there’s always more we can do,” he said.
“Having a dedicated workforce is an important part of our wider plan.”
Immigration NZ has invested heavily in trying to attract foreign health and social service workers in recent years.
Documents released under the Official Information Act show it has spent $25,117 on health-related search engine marketing since 2014.
A further $3000 was spent on Facebook advertising for five international health-related job fairs in Australia and Britain.