In spite of a busy day in federal politics yesterday, the government's Healthcare Identifiers legislation was finally passed by the Senate late yesterday evening.
In a statement released last night, Health Minister Nicola Roxon said that with the legislation passed, the government can now begin its multi-million dollar investment in e-health.
"Healthcare identifiers are a key building block of the government's plans to invest $466.7 million over the next two years to revolutionise healthcare delivery through the introduction of personally-controlled electronic health records," Roxon said.
The legislation authorises Medicare Australia to begin issuing individual 16-digit identifier numbers to patients in Australia from 1 July.
The identifier contains just enough information to identify a person, although each patient can determine whether or not they use it to create a personal e-health record. They can then use that record to share medical information between healthcare providers.
The legislation stipulates that medical providers will not penalise patients who choose not to use the number.
"The decision to establish a personally-controlled electronic health record will be a personal one and will require individual consent," Roxon said. "People will not need to remember their [number] to have access to healthcare services."
The legislation was first introduced into Parliament on 10 February this year but has been subject to a number of amendments following concerns raised by the Senate Committee, which includes members of the Coalition and Australian privacy advocates.
The Australian Privacy Foundation has expressed great concern over the introduction of the identifiers but had not responded to requests for comment on the Bill's passing at the time of writing.
The concern had been that the numbers could eventually be used to create a national ID system in all areas of government, but the legislation has outlined that any such change in use for the number must be approved by Parliament first.
The passing of the Bill was welcomed by e-health systems provider CSC, who fronted the Senate earlier this year to address some of the privacy concerns raised about the identifiers.
"It is great to see this important first piece of e-health legislation pass into law," Lisa Pettigrew, CSC's director for health services said."The Healthcare Identifiers Service, now enshrined in legislation, is a crucial step towards modernising Australia's health system and confirms our country's commitment to e-health".
"The Healthcare Identifiers Service, coupled with the recent budget announcement of $466.7 million towards personally controlled electronic health records, positions Australia to make rapid progress towards a modern e-health platform which can improve the quality and safety of care for all Australians."
How the roll-out will be implemented from 1 July is not yet clear. It was revealed in a budget estimates hearing last month that just three software vendors had signed up at the time to test the system for Medicare. Roxon's office had not responded to requests for comment on this at the time of writing.
Legislation for regulation to support the Healthcare Identifiers Service is now being considered by the Federal Executive Council.