The federal opposition is pushing for a wide-ranging senate inquiry into the My Health Record service, with civil and digital rights advocates saying there are still many issues despite the government’s recent changes.
The Labor-led motion for the senate inquiry is likely to be supported by the crossbench, following the launch of the opt-out period for My Health Record which the Opposition said was a “complete and utter disaster”.
The three-month opt-out period, which has now been extended for another month to November, began in mid-July, and was met with public outrage and concern over data security, privacy and the potential for law enforcement to access sensitive medical data. This led politicians from both sides of the aisle to reveal they will be opting out of the service, and the federal opposition to call for the opt-out period to be suspended while these issues are addressed.
Late last month, health minister Greg Hunt was forced to confirm a number of changes to My Health Record, including amendments to the underlying legislation requiring law enforcement and other authorities to have a warrant before they can access data, allowing for individual’s data to be permanently deleted if they cancel their account and an extension to the opt-out period.
But shadow health minister Catherine King said these changes don’t go far enough, and a senate inquiry is needed to investigate the myriad problems surrounding My Health Record.
“Labor remains deeply concerned that the government has lost public support when it comes to the implementation of its important health reform. Labor supports electronic health records – we established them when we were in government – but we do know that you need significant public support to actually make this system work,” Ms King told the media on Tuesday.
“It’s pretty clear this government has lost community support for My Health Record because of the complete and utter disaster it has made of its implementation.”
Mr Hunt was quick to slam the Labor announcement, saying the legislative changes announced to the My Health Record Act were going to be referred to an inquiry anyway.
“Labor knows we were already going to refer the My Health Record legislative changes to the Senate as a matter of ordinary business. This is a stunt and they know we were writing to the Senate and they were just trying to get in ahead,” Mr Hunt tweeted shortly after the announcement.
But while Mr Hunt is referring to the usual process of a senate committee looking into new laws and amendments led by a Coalition senator, Labor is pushing for an inquiry into the My Health Record service as a whole, with Labor senator Jenny McAllister acting as chair.
“We think the senate needs to look at the overall legislative framework of the My Health Record, including any regulations and rules that may be put in place, as well as looking at the implementation,” Ms King said.
“There are significant additional concerns around privacy and security that needs a root and branch look at the legislation, the regulation and the implementation of the My Health record before we can regain critical public support in this health reform.”
The inquiry will look at the laws, regulations and rules underpinning MHR, the shift to an opt-out service, the privacy and security concerns, and the adequacy of the government’s public information campaign. It will report back before the end of the opt-out period in mid-November.
My Health Record was launched under the previous Labor government as an opt-in service in 2012, with the legislation in question also written by Labor. But Ms King said the legislation needed to have been adapted by the government to suit the new opt-out model.
“We were agnostic about whether it was opt-in or opt-out but what the government failed to do was go back to the enabling legislation and ask if it was the right model for privacy and security under an opt-out model, and it was clear that it was not,” she said.
“When you moved to a model based on presumed consent there are a whole range of other issues that come up, particularly in the relationships between GPs and their patients. We don’t think the government has adequately redeveloped the legislative framework to deal with those issues.”
Civil and digital rights advocates were not impressed with the government’s changes announced last week, with Electronic Frontiers Australia board member Justin Warren saying there’s a lot more work to be done.
“I think they’re trying to do the absolute minimum after being forced into having no other option. The IT systems will need to be changed to match whatever the eventually passed legislation ends up being. There are major changes to the system, so they’re not going to be simple to implement. It’ll take some time,” Mr Warren told InnovationAus.com.
“The system needs to be paused so a comprehensive review of the various interacting pieces of legislation can be performed, as well as the privacy and security controls. Ploughing ahead with the system with all these unresolved issues is unethical, and will likely result in real harm being done to people.”
Mr Warren said defaulting the settings to share information and difficulties in changing this need to be changed, along with issues identifying who accessed a MHR record and concerns raised by family violence groups.
Australian Privacy Foundation health committee chair Bernard Robertson-Dunn also said the government’s proposed changes “do not go far enough to properly protect Australians’ privacy”.
“It is our preference that the only realistic way in which the concerns can be reliably addressed is to scrap the system reevaluate its goals and develop a better way to achieve them. Now this has gone national, the media are more interested, skeptics are more vocal and a more complete picture of My Health Record is being presented to counter the rather bland message of convincing benefits the government is putting out,” Dr Robertson-Dunn told InnovationAus.