Whanganui retiree Bruce Campbell was shocked to discover on a recent trip to Taupo that a visit to any of the town’s GP practices cost less than half what he pays at home.

Doctors in Whanganui are charging up to $40.50 for a visit, while Taupo residents never pay more than $18.

He said Taupo was a wealthier town than Whanganui, yet it cost considerably less for a visit to the GP there.

“You would get no more depressed area than Whanganui,” Mr Campbell said.

“Whanganui would have one of the highest levels of socio-economic problems.”

Approximately 12 per cent of residents in the Whanganui district received a Work and Income benefit in the last quarter, compared with 6 per cent of residents in Taupo.

All of Taupo’s three GP practices were part of the Very Low Cost Access (VLCA) scheme, where practices with 50 per cent “high needs” patients are given extra funding.

Practices that qualified were required to keep their prices at $18 or lower in exchange for the added funds.

Just two of Whanganui’s 10 GP practices – Gonville Health Centre and Te Oranganui Medical Centre – are part of the VLCA scheme.

And recently, Castlecliff Health has raised its fees from $18 to $35 for a doctor’s visit, due to rising costs.

Research published in the New Zealand Medical Journal recently said one in six adults did not visit their GP because of the cost.

And Labour health spokesman David Clark said the rising cost of a GP visit was due to underfunding of the health sector.

“The average GP fee has increased from $29.11 in 2008 to $40.71 in 2016 with some people paying up to $70 a visit,” Mr Clark said.

Charges at Whanganui Hospital are also an issue for Mr Campbell.

The hospital’s shared triage and reception with Whanganui Accident and Medical (WAM) means some patients will be referred to a service they must pay for.

“We’re the only hospital in the central region where you have to pay to go to the emergency department,” Mr Campbell said.

“The health board are just not doing their job.”

WAM is run by the Whanganui Regional Health Network and its chief executive Judith MacDonald said emergency departments in New Zealand were getting overwhelmed.

She said WAM was re-sited and incorporated in the hospital alongside the emergency department some years ago.

“Prior to re-location to the hospital campus, the service was in Wicksteed Street, but patients said they wanted access to a ‘one-stop shop’ where they could get access to doctor and nurse care, diagnostics (X-ray and lab) and if they got sicker could easily be transferred to emergency without having to drive across town.”

Ms MacDonald said WAM was primary care and not fully subsidised by the government so, other than under-13 children, patients had to pay a fee for urgent care.

“WAM provides care for over 20,000 people per year, so it’s not hard to see if all those patients were able to walk directly into the emergency department the service would soon get overwhelmed, and people who needed hospital level care would have to wait longer than was acceptable or safe.”

She said the WAM model had attracted a lot of interest from other communities across the region, with a number of visits to view the WAM/emergency department in Whanganui.