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Health Care in New Zealand

I’ve been planning on writing a post on health care in New Zealand for some time, but I don’t have that much experience with it. So I’ve been putting it off. It’s an important topic though, and people want to know about it. So I’ve decided to go ahead and share my observations and thoughts on it. Just understand that what I’m about to write isn’t a definitive account of New Zealand’s health care written by an expert in the field.

I want to kick this off by talking about health care in America. If you apply for a temporary work visa you have to get a physical performed that basically says you have all your limbs and you don’t have aids. If you apply for a permanent residence visa you have to get a pretty thorough medical screening done. Amber and I had to go through this back in Texas before we moved here. Amber had health insurance through the school she worked for, but I was doing contract I.T. work and didn’t have any health insurance. Amber ended up paying about $500 for her tests. I couldn’t find a doctor who would even see me without health insurance. Probably someone would have, but I couldn’t find them. Luckily Amber’s mother (who lived in Chicago) had just got engaged to a man who had a brother in San Antonio who was a doctor, and he agreed to do my physical for free. However, his clinic didn’t do the blood and urine tests. So I had to go somewhere else that charged me $300. I failed my lipids test because I’d eaten a pizone from Pizza Hut 6 hours before the test. You’re supposed to fast for 8 hours. So I had to shell out another $150 to redo half my blood work. So I ended up paying almost as much as Amber just for the lab work, and that was only because I was lucky enough to be able to get the actual doctor visit done pro bono. Even though Amber got all her work done for about $500, there’s no telling how much she paid in monthly insurance fees overall.

They have a saying in America (that they don’t have anywhere else) that “business is war,” and health care is big business. This means there’s a war on patients in America. I was just Skyping a friend back in Texas a few days ago, and he had his finger ripped open by a dog and had to have stitches, but he had to wait in the emergency room waiting room for six hours before he could see a doctor. He’s unemployed, but his wife was in the military. So the military paid for it. If he didn’t get to take advantage of the military’s socialized medical care I don’t know what he would have done…or if the doctors would have seen him at all. As exclusive and expensive as health care in America is you do get what you pay for…some of the time.

Point in fact, I’m a twin, and typical for twins, I was born prematurely. Atypically though, I was born just over two months prematurely. My twin was fine, but my heart hadn’t finished developing, and the patent ductus arteriosus in my heart wasn’t done developing. So I was born a “blue baby.” A valve in my heart wasn’t working, and oxygen-rich blood wasn’t circulating through my body. So I had to be air-lifted to Houston where they had one of the best heart surgery hospitals in the world. If I’d been born at home by a midwife or been born in New Zealand I might not have survived. However, my father was a chemical engineer at the time. So my family was in a prime position to save my life. They paid an arm and a leg for it, but I’m here today. If my dad wasn’t a chemical engineer then I probably wouldn’t have fared so well. Also, that was over 30 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

Michael Moore probably wouldn’t have made “Sicko” back then. I’m no fan of Michael Moore, but that movie raises valid points. The medical industry in America today is designed to get patients out “quicker and sicker” (do a Google search for that term) to maximize profits. In America, if you can’t pay extortionate prices for your medical care you just don’t get it. If you can pay your premiums you still get the bare minimum treatment. However, if you have as much money as “Magic” Johnson then you can literally survive AIDS. That’s America. The rich get the best, and the poor get nothing.

Now let’s fast-forward to after Amber and I emigrated to New Zealand.  Remember how much we paid for our immigration physicals? Well, walking around downtown Auckland we saw signs advertising immigration physicals for $250. New Zealand doesn’t have completely “free” socialized medical care like the United States Military, but it has subsidized medical care. So instead of giving all your money to the insurance companies so the CEO can buy a new yacht you give a little bit of your money to the government so your neighbor can see a doctor.

I first felt the benefit from this when I tried to give up smoking last year. In America I paid $40 for a pack of nicotine patches. In New Zealand I got 3 months’ worth for free.

I have some pretty nasty warts on the bottom of my foot that I just left alone while I was in America because I couldn’t afford to have anything done about them. I saw a doctor in New Zealand for $17. That price is pretty standard. Some places charge like $40 for a doctor’s visit, and Kiwis get red in the face about how expensive that is. Anyway, my consultation was $17 because I went to a shady doctor’s office on the poor side of town. Their trash can was literally a shopping bag hanging off the oxygen tank. They agreed to cut the warts off for $150. There was hair all over the pillow on the operating table, but I didn’t care enough to complain because I was just so happy to be getting medical attention at all. After the operation I took my prescription next door to the pharmacist and got a bag full of pain killers and antibiotics. The cost for each of the bottles was $3. It was just a flat rate of $3 for everything where in America I would have been lucky to pay $3 per pill.

Granted, the doctor’s office I went to was practically a bodega, and the warts grew back anyway. I went back for a checkup and told the doctor it looked like the warts were growing back, and they assured me that what I was seeing was just scar tissue. Since then I changed my doctor office and saw a new doctor at a more professional looking clinic about the warts. This new doctor charged me $17 for the visit and told me that verruca warts on the bottom of your feet are almost impossible to get rid of by surgery and that they would go away eventually on their own. So I left with my warts still there and with the reassurance that the doctor wasn’t trying to rip me off.

That’s as much personal experience as I’ve had with medicine in New Zealand. Granted, I didn’t go to the nicest clinic in Auckland, and I’m sure the first place I went will be shut down by health inspectors eventually. However, I wouldn’t have had that experience at all in America if for no other reason then I wouldn’t have been able to see a doctor in America.

It comes down to this, if having the absolute best health-care in the world is your top priority and money is no object then you might consider staying in America (close to a major city like Houston). However, if affordable, regular health care is more important to you then you’ll fare better in New Zealand. Even then, if you can afford to pay American prices then you could afford to fly back to America for the occasional major surgery. That’s not to say though that New Zealand doesn’t have hospitals that are fully capable performing major life-saving operations.

New Zealand also requires employees to pay into a program called ACC, which takes very good care of you if you get injured at work. Personally, I absolutely love living in New Zealand knowing that I can afford to see a doctor whenever I need to and will be able to get prescriptions filled without going bankrupt. I’m more than happy to see a New Zealand doctor, and I’ll even bet my life on that. Having said that, I’m glad I was born in America…30 years ago.

I hope that helps.


8 Responses

  1. Hi Travis,

    It is a bit misleading to say that it costs $17 to see a doctor in New Zealand. There is not a flat rate for seeing a GP. Surgeries set their own rates and they average about $30-$50 NZD if you are registered with a Primary Health Organisation (who subsidize the cost) or an additional $20 approx if you are not.

    New Zealand health care does undoubtedly have its problems and costs though. A basic service is fine but you may feel differently and want to have private medical insurance should you need major treatment as this may well not be available or may take month/years to be offered through the public system and still cost a small fortune.

    • Thank you for the clarification. I forgot to mention that private insurance is still perfectly, widely, openly available in New Zealand, and many people do take advantage of that. Also, many companies offer medical insurance options. Having said that though, any Kiwis take subsidized health care for granted and don’t realize that paying even $50 for a doctor visit in America is almost unheard of. You’d be lucky to pay $150 for a routine doctor visit in America.

  2. Also – ACC covers you for accidents anywhere at all, not just work. I cut my finger open recently while gardening and got it stitched for not a cent. Had to fill in a claim form in the ED, but that was it.

  3. Actually according to WHO the USA ranks 36th in the world. I wouldn’t call that amazing AT ALL. NZ is only 4 behind, which for a country of our size and youth I think is pretty decent. I actually work in the healthcare system here and have faith in it. And I would much rather have an accessible healthcare system for all, regardless of your income. Infact here.. the poorer you are the more access you have (community services cards etc ).

    (however, I’d much rather go live on the west coast of the states… unfortunately it’s not as easy for us to head over there to live!!)

  4. How difficult/easy is it to acquire prescription medications once you become an expat?

    • Just see a doctor, and they’ll write you a prescription.

      • ok – so it wasn’t any trouble at all? That is something that I really freak out about! Not being able to get the meds you need to keep you alive down there. But sounds like the doctors are good and believe you that you need drug xx and yy??

      • It’s probably easier to get prescriptions in New Zealand since their health care industry is so much less formal than America’s. And prescriptions are definitely cheaper in New Zealand.

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