Senate votes to extend My Health Record opt-out to January 31

An amendment put forward by Pauline Hanson has been agreed to by the Senate, less than 48 hours before the legislated opt-out period was due to end.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Senate has on Wednesday agreed to push the opt-out period for the federal government's contentious My Health Record to January 31, 2019, following an amendment put forward by Pauline Hanson.

The move by Hanson followed an amendment request made earlier in the day by Labor to extend the opt-out period for 12 months.

Despite the Senate's vote, the House of Representatives is not sitting again until November 26, well after the opt-out window is due to close.

"Their botched rollout has seriously undermined public trust in this important reform and it's going to take time to rebuild it," a statement from Shadow Minister for Health Catherine King said. "A 12-month extension will give the government time to commission and implement a Privacy Commissioner review to address outstanding concerns about system settings."

Greens leader Richard Di Natale backed the move from Labor and said the ability to delete the record once created is not the point.

"My concern, having seen this rollout over a period of months, there have been a range of very significant problems ... we've had conflicting information," he said. "When you have doctors choosing to opt-out that says something to me."

The motion was shot down by the Senate.

"We will not be supporting the amendment," Liberal Senator Nigel Scullion told the Senate.

"The notion that opt-in and then the cancellation will leave somebody high and dry ... whatever day you pick, let's say it's a years' time, there's going to have to be a translation from where you can opt-out physically and where a record is created. You can cancel and your record will be completely expunged."

Conceding that there had been "some issues" around privacy, Scullion said they are being "considered concurrently".

"We believe these privacy settings are the right settings," he continued.

King later issued another release, saying the two-month extension was "a win for common sense and for all Australians".

"This will give federal Parliament the time it needs to pass extra protections and safeguards. It was absurd that the government wanted to push on with its original timeline before this legislation had passed."

Site on the blink with under 48 hours left to opt-out

Although the amendment request to extend the opt-out period was backed, individuals wishing to opt out have until tomorrow to do so, but the last minute rush on Wednesday morning caused the opt-out website grief.

Screenshot: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

At the time of publishing, the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) -- the agency responsible for oversight of the contentious medical records system -- had not responded to a request for comment, but later reached out to ZDNet to say reports that the My Health Record system is not operational are incorrect.

"The opt-out website and the My Health Record Help Line are both operational. We are experiencing high demand, which has slowed the system down, and some people have experienced difficulties opting out this morning. These issues have now been resolved," the spokesperson said at 1.45pm AEDT.

"The agency anticipated higher call volumes and has increased the number of help line operators available to support callers. A call back feature has been enabled allowing people to leave their details for a customer service representative to return their call and process their request to opt out."

ADHA and Health Minister Greg Hunt have refused to give an update on how many Australians have opted out of the system.

The last figure was given on October 24, when a Senate committee was told that 1,147,000 people had opted out by October 19.

ADHA at the time told Senate Estimates the opt-out rate was under 5 percent. In July, Hunt said the government was expecting a My Health Record opt-out rate of 10 percent.

Originally, the opt-out period was from July 16 through October 15, 2018, but it was in August pushed out another 30 days.

At the time, Hunt said delaying the opt-out period gives Australians "more time to consider their options as we strengthen the 2012 My Health Record legislation".

On the first day of the opt-out window, 20,000 people chose not have a digital health record.

My Health Records will not be created until December 15, due to the need to reconcile paper form opt-outs, the government previously said.

On Monday, ADHA published a statement that claimed the protection of peoples' privacy and the security was "paramount" for the agency.

It said it had over 100 operations staff working on security and privacy monitoring and protections, including a dedicated cybersecurity operations team and specialist cell of cybersecurity threat intelligence analysts and a small team dedicated to privacy policy.

"These functions come together in an experienced and well-resourced privacy and security function, which is dedicated to delivering on our statutory obligations and building exemplary standards in privacy and security," the agency wrote.

"The Agency's privacy activities are independently assessed by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. To date the Agency has never received an adverse finding from this independent oversight."

The statement from ADHA followed the resignation of the agency's director of privacy last month over privacy concerns.

"The agency strongly rejects statements made in the media regarding the circumstances of the former director's departure. At no time has a complaint been raised with the agency executive by any staff member about concerns with the Privacy Policy functions or with the privacy protections of the My Health Record system," ADHA said, noting the individual replacing Nicole Hunt holds a PhD in digital health and has been working on national electronic health records for over 20 years.

Updated 2.30pm AEDT: Added additional remarks from Shadow Minister for Health Catherine King and ADHA.


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