Privacy groups want health identifier clarity

Ahead of the scheduled 1 July start date for the introduction of individual healthcare identifiers, the Australian Privacy Foundation has slammed the Federal Government for its lack of communication around the Individual Healthcare Identifier Bill.

Ahead of the scheduled 1 July start date for the introduction of individual healthcare identifiers, the Australian Privacy Foundation has slammed the Federal Government for its lack of communication around the Individual Healthcare Identifier Bill.

With just one parliamentary sitting week left to get the Bill through the Senate before 1 July, Australian Privacy Foundation's chair of the health sub committee Dr Juanita Fernando said the lack of communication surrounding the planned implementation was a cause for concern.

"We find it appalling that the national government has offered no coherent analysis, architecture or governance framework for the Health Identifiers Bill currently before the Senate," Fernando said.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced a number of changes to the Healthcare Identifiers Bill including clarifications around how healthcare organisations would communicate with the Health Identifiers Service, but according to Fernando, this was not enough.

"The evidence suggests that some health authorities may actually be misinforming Australian consumers and patients as well," Fernando said, adding the Australian Privacy Foundation believed the identifiers were the first step to a new national ID.

"We are concerned by government efforts to introduce a national identification scheme linked to improved health outcomes for patients," Fernando said.

Fernando said a recent document (PDF) released by the National e-Health Transition Authority "suggests Australian health authorities will adopt a national health identifier plan that is similar to that used in the UK [and while] UK citizens can opt out of the NHS plan, Australians will never be permitted to opt out of the Healthcare Identifiers Service".

"We have warned that the first time many Australians will be aware they have been assigned an identification number is when they visit the doctor's office or Medicare and a staff member at the service counter asks the patient to confirm identifying information," she said.

The Australian Financial Review reported today that the government was rumoured to be preparing for further compromises on the legislation to get the Bill passed next week. The changes were said to include naming Medicare as the service operator and also preventing an expansion of the use of the numbers in other areas of government without going before Parliament. These changes appear to address some of the concerns raised by the Australian Privacy Foundation and Federal Opposition.

If the legislation is not passed by the Senate next week, the roll-out of the individual identifier numbers would have to be delayed until after the next sitting in August. It was revealed in Senate estimates a few weeks ago that just three vendors had signed up to test the identifier system.

The identifiers will form the base to support the government's $466.7 million investment in e-health outlined in this year's budget.

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