Federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek has addressed criticism of how the government has reallocated funds for its planned e-health system in a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
In the 2012-13 Budget, the government had to find money to continue its personally controlled electronic health record (PCEHR) scheme, which will see the roll-outs of electronic records to all Australians who opt in from 1 July. The funds that it had already provided were to run out in June.
When the Budget was released, the government allocated another $233 million to the scheme, on top of the $466 million that it had already allocated in the 2010 Budget.
However, scraping together the money from the program has meant the scaling back of telehealth initiatives, and also making payments to practices for adopting information and technology security measures contingent on general practitioners taking part in the PCEHR scheme.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has protested loudly against using the loss of incentive payments as a "stick" to force doctors to participate in the PCEHR scheme. The AMA has already questioned this, as it doesn't believe that doctors will be compensated for the time they spend creating patients' shared health summaries to lie at the core of the e-health record.
Plibersek, however, was unapologetic for the government's approach in her speech today.
She said that the last two years have been about building the foundations for the PCEHR systems, with the government spending over $160 million on encouraging GPs across Australia to upgrade their computer systems.
Now, over 96 per cent of Australian practices have what they need for e-health, she said, and the government wants to get that ball rolling to focus spending on the adoption of the PCEHR and the innovations it will bring, instead of the basics.
"We've supported GPs to develop their IT systems. And from next year, by raising the bar for incentive payments, we'll encourage them to offer e-health to their patients through the e-health record," she said.
The reasoning was based on what the government's role should be at any given time.
"As we move forward with our e-health agenda, it makes sense that we regularly reassess the appropriate role for government," she said.
In 2008, that was on making sure that the infrastructure was in place to enable e-health to flourish. Now, the government's role is shifting.
"As we bed down the core infrastructure, I believe we need to turn our minds to how government can help unleash the creativity and inventiveness of the private and not-for-profit sectors," she said.
"As long as the strict security and privacy regime is maintained, we should work to make it easy for private providers and [non-government organisations] to offer e-health-related services to health professionals and patients.
"I am particularly excited about the potential for some seriously interesting innovation in the consumer applications space."
Any cuts to facilitate e-health are all about the most efficient use of the health dollar, according to Plibersek.
"E-health is a great example of how the government is working to get the best value from each health dollar," she explained. "And in this challenging economic environment, the government was able to make this investment by finding efficiencies elsewhere in the health portfolio."
It wasn't about efficiency for efficiency's sake, she said, but more about cutting waste and being smart about investments.