Health Minister Andrew Little has done an about turn and agreed to having a separate, legally-binding rural health strategy in the Pae Ora Health Futures legislation, which comes into effect in July.
The Pae Ora Healthy Futures Bill, which takes effect on July 1, is hugely significant. It is the first major reform for nearly two decades and the goal is to try and fix some of the enormous problems the sector is facing. Rural communities are seen as the poor cousin to urban people in terms of health services, facilities and the lack of access due to their isolation. Urban people have these on their doorstep, but even they endure long waiting lists for 'elective surgery'.
The bill was based on a series of reports, most notably one by Heather Simpson who was Helen Clark's formidable former chief of staff. It was Simpson who recommended that the rural community should have legal status in the bill along with Māori, Pacifica, women and people with disabilities. But in the debate in the select committee reviewing the legislation - the committee dominated by Labour and Green MPs - a bizarre decision was made to strike out 'rural'.
This rightly drew immediate outrage from the Rural GP's Network with their chair, Dr Fiona Bolden, calling it outrageous and saying it left nearly a million rural people out in the wilderness. National's Dr Shane Reti and Act's Brooke van Velden added their voices to the outcry and outrage over the select committee decision.
The reasons why the committee made such a decision is puzzling although there are several theories which are best left unsaid.
In the end, and to his credit, Andrew Little read the political landscape much better than his colleagues in the select committee and reinserted 'rural' into the bill. That there was a debate on this issue reflects badly on Labour and reinforces the view that rural is a low priority for them. It shows that some people in the Labour caucus don't understand what is happening outside Wellington and are fixated on urban social issues.
This is a victory for rural NZ and a terrible outcome has been avoided by a senior politician finally seeing reason - albeit at the last minute.