A Queenstown-based woman would have to live till she’s 124 if she’s to pay off an $18,000 health bill she believes is wrongfully issued.
Sarka Zemanova, 54, has been battling Southern District Health Board and the Ministry of Health for a “common sense” approach after being slapped with the costs of life-saving emergency hospital treatment in May last year.
She’s settling the bill at $5 a week , so it would take 70 years to clear.
“It’s all I can afford,” Zemanova says.
“I’m working at Mobil petrol station for $14.50 an hour.”
By law, the public health system provides free treatment to people in New Zealand on work visas if they’ve been here two or more years.
Zemanova, a Czech Republic national, has lived in NZ on work visas since 2003 – she returned to her home country from May 2007 to December 2009 for family reasons.
The Ministry of Health ruled Zemanova doesn’t qualify for a freebie because she hadn’t been back in New Zealand long enough prior to the operation.
She’d been back in NZ for six months when she was rushed from Lakes District Hospital to Southland Hospital with gallstones in a duct between her liver and intestine. She claims an Invercargill doctor told her she wouldn’t have to pay for her healthcare.
Soon after surgery, the $18,166.20 bill arrived. She was denied health insurance cover from her Czech Republic policy because she’d had a similar problem within 12 months of the Queenstown incident.
Zemanova and her partner Wayne Wetton have spent the past year pleading with health bureaucrats for reconsideration but have been stonewalled by both SDHB and MoH because of the national two-year policy.
“To me it’s absolute garbage,” Wetton says. “Sarka’s lived here for almost six years in total. I believe once you qualify it should be a lifetime qualification. Common sense must prevail.”
When debt collectors became involved last year, Sarka offered to pay back the sum at $5 per week. The debt will be cleared in 2081.
Outgoing SDHB boss Brian Rousseau says he feels “desperately sorry” for Zemanova but a determination by the Ministry means she must pay the bill.
If people can’t pay, the DHB writes off the debt, he says.
“But we will continue to try to recover the money. We have a public responsibility – a moral and ethical obligation – to do that for NZ,” Rousseau says.
A MoH spokesman says: “It is important that people on temporary visas ascertain whether or not they are eligible for free and subsidised services. The Government recommends that people who are not eligible have comprehensive travel insurance.”