Migrants accessing health care in New Zealand

Getting information about what healthcare migrants can access in New Zealand is a bit of a problem which is starting to cause issues – I saw the following article in the paper today:

Migrants ‘clogging’ hospital

Christchurch Hospital’s emergency department (ED) is the busiest it has ever been and foreign rebuild workers have been pinpointed as the likely main cause.

Migrant workers with illnesses as minor as colds are “clogging up” ED because they are not enrolling with GPs in Christchurch, a business leader says.

The city’s health sector is calling for the workers to enrol at medical practices to take pressure off the hospital.

You can read the whole article here

Christchurch rebuild

This is not a new problem at all, I’ve seen these issues in Christchurch since 2006 when move2nz launched our migrant centre as a dedicated resource to help skilled migrants.

Now working as a licensed immigration adviser in the centre of Christchurch with rebuild workers every day I see this problem close up. This problem is growing more apparent simply because of the number of people coming in to help with the rebuild.

Rebuild workers fall into two main groups:

  1. Young people on Working Holiday Visas
    These generally cover only a year and the workers are required to hold medical and comprehensive hospitalisation insurance for the length of their stay.

    The exception is the UK scheme where the visa can be for up to 23 months and no medical insurance is required because there is a reciprocal agreement between New Zealand and the UK.

  2. Skilled workers on work visas
    These visas can be for up to three years although many (especially for lower skilled job like truck and digger drivers, and scaffolders) are just for one year.

So how do these workers access healthcare and what differences are there between them?


Many rebuild workers are in hard physical jobs where accidents can happen. Luckily New Zealand has an accident compensation scheme: ACC.

This is a ‘no fault’ universal accident insurance scheme which covers treatment costs for accidental injuries whether you are a citizen or just a visitor, whether you had an accident at work or cycling up in the hills.

Anyone having an accident can access hospital so there is no difference between our two groups except that as ‘part charges’ may apply medical insurance could be useful.

One thing to be aware of however is that while ACC covers injury-related treatment it does not cover repatriation expenses. It is a good idea to have comprehensive travel insurance to cover this.

Warning: Check the small-print on your medical insurance. This year a migrant who had come to me for immigration advice sadly died in a climbing accident. Due to a technicality in his medical insurance the company refused to fly his body home (on the basis he hadn’t been resident in the UK for six months before he took out the policy).

Make sure you don’t encounter the same problem by checking the small-print on your policy.

In an emergency dial 111 and ask for an ambulance

Public healthcare

This falls into two areas and there can be important differences for migrants:

  1. General Practitioner (GP)
    These handle all general medical and wellness issues and should be your first port of call if you are unwell. Registering with a GP is recommended, you can search for  a GP near you using the interactive map.
  2. Hospital Care
    There is a strong drive to keep hospitals free to stop them getting bogged down and for this reason before heading to a hospital you should try:

Importantly there can be costs accessing any medical services.

Free Public Health Care
For those who qualify for free public health care you can access:

  • free public hospital treatment
  • free treatment at public hospital 24-hour accident and emergency (A&E) clinics
  • subsidies on prescription items
  • subsidised fees for visits to GPs.
  • subsidised fees for specialist care (such as physiotherapists) when referred by a GP for an accident case
  • free or subsidised health care if suffering from acute or chronic medical conditions
  • no charge for most laboratory tests and x-rays, except at privately operated clinics
  • no charge for public health care during pregnancy and childbirth
  • no charge for GP referrals to a public hospital for treatment
  • subsidies for children under six for visits to the doctor and prescriptions (most visits to the doctor  and prescribed medicines for small children are free)
  • free breast screening for women aged between 45 and 69.

Your can check your eligibility for free healthcare – if you have a work visa lasting at least two years for example or come from the UK or Australia you are covered.

The Problem

The real problems here then are that:

  • Many migrants do not register with a GP and do not know where to go for medical help, for this reason they end up at the hospital which doesn’t have the resources to cope.
    • Solution:
      Register with a GP and follow the links in this article to find out more about health services in Christchurch. Go to the appropriate medical service if you need care, leaving the hospital as a last resort.
  • Some people on Working Holiday Visas do not have the comprehensive medical insurance they are required to have, making them vulnerable to mishap.
    • Solution:
      Make sure you have comprehensive medical insurance and check the small-print to make sure you are covered right through your stay in New Zealand, not just the first 6 months. Repatriation in case of serious mishap is an important inclusion.
  • There is a small group that fall outside health provisions: people on a one year work visa. This group do not have access to free healthcare and often do not have medical insurance. This makes them highly vulnerable and often they will not realise until something goes wrong. People in this situation can end up with large and unexpected medical bills.
    • Solution:
      Take out comprehensive medical insurance!

So if you are in Christchurch get searching for a GP near you and register. Find out where your local medical services are (there is a handy interactive map here including GPs and pharmacies) and take care of yourself.

If you are having difficulties access medical care let us know by posting about your experiences below ;o).

Mike Bell

Mike is architect of migrant community move2nz.com, a migrant advocate, and a qualified and licensed immigration adviser.


Useful links for Christchurch:


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