The recent Budget that the government has announced has been a mixed bag.

One area that has come in for criticism is that the Budget presented by the Labour government has failed to help those affected by breast cancer as it doesn’t have anything to address the massive backlog of women awaiting breast screening.

Justine Smyth, Chair of the Breast Cancer Foundation, feels that this Budget has let down the women of NZ by overlooking the enormous breast screening backlog that is preventing 50,000 women from getting their mammograms.

“It makes no sense that a Budget that was supposed to ‘accelerate the recovery and rebuild from the impacts of Covid-19’ fails to address an issue that is so crucial to the wellbeing of Kiwi women. Breast Cancer Foundation NZ has been asking the government to invest $15m in targeted funding for BreastScreen Aotearoa to clear the mammogram backlog of 50,000 women within a year,” rues Smyth.

Smyth expressed her fear that with no plan on how the government will clear the backlog urgently, hundreds of women could end up with more challenging to treat, or worse, untreatable breast cancers. “We've been raising this issue for over eight months now, and to keep ignoring it represents a complete failure by the Government to tackle the leading cause of death for Kiwi women under 65,” says Smyth.

According to the Cancer Society of NZ, breast screening rates have declined from 71.6 percent in 2019 to 63.5 percent in 2022.

Rachel Nicholls, National Advisor Health Promotion & Policy of Cancer Society of New Zealand, feels that a significant contributor to this reduced capacity was the strain on the health workforce.

As she puts it, “Breast screening was considered a critical service and continued throughout all traffic light phases (regardless of vaccination status). However, capacity was impacted, resulting in fewer women being screened. We believe that a big contributor to this reduced capacity was the strain on the health workforce. The Cancer Society has long called for more investment in the health workforce and would have liked to have seen this reflected in the Budget. We appreciate all the considerable effort the NSU/DHBs are making to reduce the backlog caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

Political parties show their disappointment

Even political parties have expressed their disappointment that the Budget does not include specific funding for increasing the number of mammograms.

ACT Party’s Health spokesperson Brooke van Velden said, “Breast cancer has touched the lives of too many New Zealanders. We all know someone who has been affected, and Covid-19 lockdowns have pushed breast screening waitlists back by ten years. The government had an opportunity to address this problem, instead, they've ignored it in favour of ideological reform and race-based spending. Labour is calling its Budget “A Secure Future”, but there is nothing secure about the future for many women who will be unable to access crucial screening that could save their lives as a result of it.”

National Party’s Health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti also expressed his concern about the massive backlog. “I am very concerned with the 50,000 backlogs for women waiting for cancer breast screening. The Breast Cancer Foundation says $15M will clear the backlog, but last month, Andrew Little let $25M of vaccines expire and incinerated. The new Budget has $30M for back-office health reforms but nothing for New Zealanders who need their cancer screening,” he said.

Government health officials acknowledge that the Budget provides significant cost pressure funding to enable the new health commissioning entity Health New Zealand to meet core volume, wage, and price pressures across the health system over the next two years.

Deborah Woodley, Ministry of Health Deputy Director-General Population Health and Prevention, says,  “Budget 21 included funding to support and manage the impacts of Covid-19 for breast screening. In terms of the national breast screening programme, performing additional mammograms is not just a matter of funding. For example, increasing the breast screening workforce is a complex task due to the shortage of skilled workforce required to provide a high-quality screening service, such as radiologists.”

Woodley assured that the work is underway to address the fall in coverage for the breast screening programme. “Breast screening services have extended appointment times into the evening and weekends wherever possible, and a lot of work has been put into making sure breast screening appointments are safe, and appointments are available,” Woodley said.