27 Oct 2023

Pharmac top boss apologises over comments about journalist and cancer patient stories

8:58 pm on 27 October 2023

Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt. Photo: RNZ / LUKE MCPAKE

Pharmac's chief executive has apologised for making unprofessional comments about a journalist and stories of cancer patients struggling to self-fund essential medication.

Sarah Fitt made the comments in a series of internal emails last year, which were released under the Official Information Act.

Pharmac's board discussed how to respond to the comments being made public at its meeting on Friday.

Fitt made a statement apologising for the comments following the meeting, saying they "were not in keeping with the Public Service values".

"As the chief executive, I am ultimately responsible for leading and setting the tone for the organisation. I did not meet this expectation and deeply regret my actions," she said.

"The Pharmac Board has agreed with my recommendation to implement a series of actions to improve the culture of Pharmac and ensure we do not see a repeat of this."

She did not resign, as had been suggested by many cancer patients and advocates.

The recommendation was an eight-point action plan to improve culture.

It included an updated staff induction, engaging an external provider to assist the leadership team and increase proactive releases of information.

"The chief executive and senior leadership team are taking this matter very seriously and are addressing the concerns immediately," board chair Steve Maharey said.

"The chief executive expressed her regret over the comments. The board has accepted her apology and verbal explanation.

"The board will be provided with regular updates on the implementation of the action plan, and we will closely monitor progress," he said.

But Patient Voice Aotearoa said the apology from Pharmac's chief executive was shallow.

Chair Malcolm Mulholland said Fitt's apology was not enough and she should have resigned today.

Mulholland said the behaviour had been going on for years, and without change the culture would not shift.

"It's not just the case of criticising those who actually wrote the emails, it's actually about looking at who was involved in the entire email exchange.

"Nobody within the senior leadership of Pharmac ... at any point in time, said, 'Maybe we should stop this type of behaviour. Maybe what we're writing is actually quite insensitive and unprofessional."

Pharmac Action Plan

Immediate actions

  • The Board Chair and chief executive will speak to all staff after the October Board meeting about the Board's discussion and the action plan.
  • Engage an external party to assist the senior leadership team and the Board with work underway on the culture of Pharmac.
  • Update induction for all new staff and external advisers to ensure a stronger focus on our responsibilities as public servants.
  • Take immediate steps to ensure staff are familiar with and fully comply with our privacy policy and related materials together with our online privacy statement.

Actions over the next three months

  • Improve engagement with our stakeholders to ensure we are listening to their concerns and responding to them appropriately and in a timely way.
  • Increase what information we proactively release that may be of public interest and be more open and transparent.
  • Introduce learning modules about the machinery of government, Privacy Act, Official Information Act and Code of Conduct as annual mandatory training for all staff.
  • Provide regular updates to the Board on progress against the actions.

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