Health Minister Andrew Little says the reason mentally ill patients needing acute hospital care are facing long wait times is due to a lack of beds and community discharge placements.
The Mental Health Foundation is blaming extended wait times of mentally ill patients in emergency departments on under-investment.
ED staff at North Shore Hospital have laid a formal health and safety complaint to Te Whatu Ora, saying some people seeking urgent mental health support are being stranded for up to days at a time.
The report warns that staff and patients could be harmed if the problem is not urgently fixed.
Little told Morning Report he was aware mental health wards were experiencing a high level of occupancy.
"We know that there are some patients in those wards who if they had a better place to be discharged to they wouldn't need to be on the ward," Little said.
Little said that's why a chunk of this year's acute mental health budget was going into community placements.
He said that would free up ward beds while ensuring mental health patients were discharged safely.
"A lot of the problems that many EDs are suffering at the moment are not the fault of ED ... it's other parts of the hospital, so beds that you would expect to be available in other wards are not available because of high occupancy there and there's a number reasons for that."
Te Whatu Ora has told the minister that North Shore Hospital has a mental health nurse available at its emergency department around the clock.
Little said Te Whatu Ora would also be adding another registered nurse and a healthcare assistant to the hospital's emergency department to assist with occupancy pressures.
Aged residential care facilities would in other cases help absorb excess patients into their facilities but they were experiencing a lack of beds, he said.
Little admitted the country had not been successful at addressing health workforce problems for many years prior to the pandemic, but he was confident there was work under way to change this.
He said New Zealanders should not feel discouraged from visiting an emergency department because of the longer wait times.
"If you are unwell and you feel you need care straight away and it is urgent go to your ED, you will get the care that you need, you might have to wait longer than usual but it is the best place for you to be," Little said.
Calls for fast-tracking of overseas nurses
The National Party has renewed its calls on the government to include nurses in the fast track to residence program, as a workforce shortage of four-thousand grips the industry.
National Party immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford told Morning Report few nurses were applying for New Zealand visas.
"They have dropped off a cliff; only five nurses applied to come in to do their CAP course which is their pre-registration course in September, those numbers were up around 150 for the rest of the year.
"We've got some serious problems, we're losing out to other countries, we have to make an urgent change and we can't wait," she said.
Stanford said the government needed to put its pride to one side and change the visa requirements.
"Everybody knows the only reason they are not shifting on this is because of pure pride, they don't want to be seen to be wrong but they have to own up to it because Kiwi lives are at stake.
"I do think they will make a U-turn because they are the only people out on a limb who believe that nurses should have to wait two years so I think it will come. The sad thing is it will come to late for the nurses at North Shore Hospital, at Middlemore Hospital and Christchurch Hospital," she said.
Little said 471 nurses had been granted entry to New Zealand, 355 of those would be dedicated to Health NZ and 76 would enter critical care and emergency roles.
"They don't all come straight away ... most qualified nurses who are coming here actually come here on a visitor's visa because they need to do a competency assessment program and they don't get a work visa until they've completed that program."
He said these nurses represented a net addition to the health workforce but they required training before entering the health system.
The evidence didn't suggest that adding nurses to the fast track residency list would see many more nurses joining the workforce, he said.
"We're getting applications everyday and we're getting nurses crossing the border and nurses starting work everyday, so that is happening probably not as fast as some people would like, we've got about 4000 nurse positions we have to fill just in Health NZ and others in term of primary care and aged residential care."
Little said overseas nurses arriving through the visitor's visa were completing their training programmes everyday and a new class of student nurses would soon join the workforce.