​Labor admits health IT system requires refresh

The Australian Labor Party has admitted the country's health IT system needs an update and has not ruled out involving the private sector, despite accusing the prime minister of doing the same.
Written by Asha Barbaschow on

The federal opposition has admitted that the computer systems behind Australian health need to be modernised, with Labor leader Bill Shorten saying this should occur "at some point", not dismissing the idea of private sector engagement.

Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said she would not rule out involving the private sector in the inevitable IT improvements, which would need to happen within five years.

"But under no circumstances would you flog it off," she told ABC radio on Monday.

The acknowledgement of the health IT concerns comes in the wake of Shorten accusing the current government of planning to privatise Medicare.

Early on in Shorten's election campaign, the Labor leader declared the July 2 poll was a referendum on protecting the Medicare system.

However, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull emphatically ruled out selling off any part of Medicare and accused Shorten of running a "dishonest scare campaign".

"This is the biggest lie of the campaign -- not the only one of Mr Shorten's lies I might say," Turnbull said Monday morning. "Medicare will never, ever be privatised, and never be sold."

Less than two weeks out from the election, Turnbull confirmed services which are currently being delivered by Medicare would continue to be covered, and that he would be engaging with the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) to make Medicare services more user friendly .

"Every element of Medicare services that is being delivered by government today will be delivered by government in the future. Full stop," he said. "I am making a solemn commitment."

But the shadow health spokeswoman is not convinced, declaring the government was currently at "very, very advanced" stages of privatising the IT systems, having already put out an expression of interest to companies.

"We've heard Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals say a whole lot of things about health before," King said. "It's pretty hard to believe anything they have to say."

King pointed to Telstra's contract to manage the national cancer registry, insisting the government would have to pay the telecommunications company extra to mine patient data.

"This is a disaster when it comes to health," she said.

Under the contract signed in May, Telstra Health will create a database of cancer records for those who have been screened for bowel and cervical cancer, with patients and doctors able to access the register online. The register will integrate eight existing cervical cancer registers and the current bowel cancer register, with more than 11 million separate records being amalgamated onto a single platform.

When asked if Labor would involve the private sector when modernising computer systems, King said "certainly we'll have to look at IT solutions".

In a statement made over the weekend, Shadow Human Services Minister Doug Cameron pointed to a scoping paper [PDF] released by the Productivity Commission, which he said clearly shows that Turnbull's intention to privatise Medicare is just the beginning.

In the scope of the inquiry the commission states it is examining the application of competition and user choice to services within the human services sector to develop policy options to improve outcomes. Throughout its inquiry, the commission said it expects to determine the role of private sector and not-for-profit providers, in addition to government departments.

The Department of Human Services published a Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) in September to help with the design and construction of a new welfare payment system to replace the current 30-year-old system Income Security Integrated System (ISIS).

The REOI said the department relies on ISIS to deliver payments to 7.3 million Australians, with Centrelink payments totalling over AU$100 billion annually.

Previously, the National Commission of Audit said the department's ISIS system posed a "significant risk to a core function of government", and called for a simpler payment structure and a redesign that would involve expertise from both the public and private sector.

In 2013, when he was the shadow communications minister, Turnbull said the former government had been neglecting the overall issue of the digital economy, adding that a Liberal government would look to move more Australian government services into the cloud, and would hand responsibility for IT back to some of the larger agencies in return for better reporting.

With AAP


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