The government will launch a new data-matching scheme for sensitive medical information, designed to crack down on Medicare fraud, after controversial legislation sailed through Parliament with support from the Opposition.
The last sitting day of 2019 also saw the introduction of legislation paving the way for the launch of the $540 million Business Growth Fund, as well as a mandatory credit reporting regime, two years later than originally planned.
The Medicare data-matching legislation, which facilitates a greatly expanded scope of medical information sharing between departments and agencies for the purposes of detecting fraudulent claims, passed through the Senate after Labor had already revealed it would be supporting the bill unamended.
Through a number of submissions, the government was told of a series of concerns around the scheme, mainly in terms of privacy and data security. But two weeks after receiving these submissions, the legislation was introduced to Parliament and quickly waved through by the Opposition.
The legislation expands existing data matching capabilities to include information from the Medical Benefits Scheme, Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Veterans Affairs, Home Affairs, Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency and the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Labor Senator Carol Brown delivered a quick speech in the Senate on Thursday before the legislation was approved.
“The bill will help to identify and take action against the very small number of health providers who make inappropriate Medicare claims. Importantly, however, it will not allow the government to share information with private health insurers,” Senator Brown said.
The process won’t involve any automation, Senator Brown said, which would have made it “akin to the disastrous robodebt scheme”.
The actual legislation provides barely any information on how this data will be shared and what protections will be in place. This will instead be outlined in a legislative instrument to be created by health minister Greg Hunt.
Senator Brown said that there is “little detail” in the bill and that Labor will be “scrutinising the eventual instrument very closely”.
Shadow health minister Chris Bowen had previously said that the Opposition had looked at the legislation “carefully and closely” before agreeing to support it, and that it is “vital” that the “small risk” to privacy it brings be managed.
Submittors to government on the data-sharing scheme warned that it would put the privacy of all Australians at “serious risk” and that the powers given to government as part of it are “too broad”.
The Coalition also introduced legislation allowing the government to participate in the formation of the Australian Business Growth Fund, and appropriated $100 million to inject into it, on the last sitting day of 2019.
The fund will provide “patient capital” to Australian businesses looking to expand but not take on any further debt or give away control of their companies. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently announced that the big four banks have all agreed to provide $100 million to the fund, with other small banks plunging in money too.The fund is set to launch with $540 million in firepower.
To be eligible for the fund, SMEs will have to show evidence of three years of revenue growth and profitability and a “clear growth vision”. This has led to concerns that most startups and early-stage tech companies who would have been most interested in the fund would be locked out from accessing it.
The Business Growth Fund will provide investments of between $5 million and $15 million and will take a stake of between 10 to 40 percent.
“With better access to competitive finance, SMEs will be able to grow, fulfil their potential and continue to underpin Australian economic growth and employment,” Mr Frydenberg said.
Mr Frydenberg also finally introduced mandatory credit reporting legislation to Parliament last week, two years later than had been originally announced by then-Treasurer Scott Morrison in late 2017.
The bill implements a rigorous credit reporting regime, with the big four banks having to provide comprehensive credit information to credit reporting bodies from April next year. By mid-2021 the big banks will have supplied comprehensive credit data on all consumer accounts to every eligible credit reporting body, Mr Frydenberg told Parliament.
The legislation had been delayed due to concerns over privacy and data security, and how financial hardship arrangements should be treated.
The “already strict provisions” in the Privacy Act will be further strengthened as part of the legislation, the Treasurer said.
“Under the comprehensive credit reporting regime, consumers will have better access to credit and will be able to use their reliable credit history to seek more competitive rates. Those consumers who possess a poor credit rating will be able to demonstrate their creditworthiness through future reliability,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“Credit providers will have a more complete picture of a consumer’s financial situation. This will help them to better price credit and meet their responsible lending obligations.”
It’s another fintech-friendly policy, with open banking also set to launch formally next year.
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