My Health Record privacy amendments 'woefully inadequate': Labor

An Australian senate committee has recommended passing the My Health Records Amendment (Strengthening Privacy) Bill 2018, but Labor senators have lashed out at the government's "stubborn refusal" to fix further problems.

After carefully reading and considering 31 public submissions on the My Health Record privacy amendments, as well as three further documents from community health organisations, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee's report on its inquiry has made just one solitary recommendation.

"The committee recommends the Bill be passed," it reads.

The committee didn't come up with a single suggested improvement to the hastily written Bill, at least according to the majority view. Solid effort, although to be fair there's a second, more comprehensive inquiry under way.

The Bill in question is the My Health Records Amendment (Strengthening Privacy) Bill 2018, which is intended to allay the privacy concerns which have lead to 900,000 Australians opting out of the centralised digital health records system.

The Bill only addresses the two most prominent concerns, however. If passed, it would grant individuals the ability the delete their records completely rather than merely making them inactive, and tighten the restrictions on law enforcement agencies being able to access an individual's health records.

As this writer has discussed previously, Canberra is still missing the point when it comes to broader community concerns.

These include the vast potential for misuse by the 900,000 healthcare workers who can access the system, ill-thought privacy controls, complex access controls that will be difficult for ordinary humans to operate, and the as-yet-unspecified "secondary use" of personal medical data.

On the ability to delete a record, the committee said that proposed amendments "would, if passed, improve healthcare recipients' ability to control how their health information is stored".

It said that the proposal to require "an order of a judicial officer" before records could be released to law enforcement was "a significant enhancement to the privacy provisions" of the My Health Records Act 2012.

"The committee acknowledges the Bill's proposed amendments reflect current government policy not to disclose MHR information without a court order. The committee notes that the current System Operator, the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA), has not, since its establishment in 2016, received a request for MHR information for law enforcement purposes, nor has the ADHA disclosed information for that purpose."

While the Labor senators on the committee supported the recommendation to pass the Bill, they've also called it "woefully inadequate".

"The Minister for Health dismissed inquiries into the My Health Record as a 'stunt'. But the inquiry has revealed a range of serious flaws in the current legislation that are not addressed by the government's Bill," they wrote.

"These flaws have been created by the government's rushed implementation of an opt-out model. Legislation and settings that made sense in Labor's opt-in model -- when informed consent was assured -- make no sense under the government's opt-out model."

The Labor senators said that they would move further amendments, including to assure that My Health Record can never be privatised or commercialised, or used by private health insurers; that employees' right to privacy is protected in the context of employer-directed healthcare; and that vulnerable children and parents such as those fleeing domestic violence are protected.

They've lashed out at what they call the government's "stubborn refusal" to address these and other criticisms.

Originally scheduled to have ended in mid-October, the opt-out period for My Health Record has been extended to November 15. Labor has called for it to be extended indefinitely.

The comprehensive Senate inquiry into the My Health Record system is now due to report this Wednesday October 17.

Related Coverage