After bowing to demands for tighter safeguards in the My Health Record legislation, Health Minister Greg Hunt still faces calls to postpone the opt-out deadline that falls due next week.
The minister said today he had agreed to make the safeguard changes – which include tougher penalties for misuse of MHR data – in response to a Senate inquiry and “sensible and reasonable requests from medical authorities”.
The announcement came after a rush of people attempting to opt out of the troubled system reportedly caused a meltdown at the My Health Record call centre yesterday.
The planned amendments include raising the maximum criminal penalty for a breach from two years to five years’ jail and increasing the fine from $126,000 to $315,000 for individuals.
There are also provisions to protect patients affected by domestic violence and to ban employers from requesting and using health information in a patient’s electronic health record.
AMA President Dr Tony Bartone welcomed the announcement, especially the provisions around privacy, confidentiality, and access by insurers.
However, he acknowledged more work would need to be done.
“The My Health Record may not yet be perfect, but it will get there with the support of the public and the health professions,” he said.
“It is better than anything else out there now. Some doctors are still using their fax machines. We need to move into the 21st century,” Dr Bartone said.
Labor’s health spokesperson Catherine King said the government needed to extend the November 15 opt-out deadline to allow time to consider the new amendments.
“These changes have been made with only days left until the opt-out deadline closes,” she said.
“We once again call on Minister Hunt to heed Labor’s call for a further extension to the opt-out period.
“We also call on the government to commission a Privacy Commissioner review to address outstanding privacy concerns about system settings.”
Ms King took the opportunity to remind voters that when Labor proposed the Senate inquiry into the e-health record, Mr Hunt dismissed it as a “stunt”.
“Now – with just a week to go until the end of the opt-out period – Minister Hunt has realised we were right all along and is scrambling to implement our fixes.”
The Consumers Health Forum said bipartisan support was essential for the My Health Record to succeed, backing the call to put off the deadline.
It said more time was needed for debate and to settle “significant issues affecting public support” for the new system.
CEO Leanne Wells welcomed “several key improvements” in the amendments but said it was vital that the start-up of My Health Record was not overshadowed by uncertainty and political disputation.
“We urge our political leaders to work towards an all-party settlement before the opt out deadline is implemented,” she said.
“If that is not possible before 15 November, that formal deadline should be extended.”
The forum said the deadline was too soon to completely examine the proposed amendments to legislation to ensure that law enforcement agencies could only access a record with a warrant or court order and to allow the permanent deletion of records of people opting out.
Former AMA president Dr Kerryn Phelps, the independent who won the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth vacated by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, said Mr Hunt should act swiftly to extend the opt-out period.
“I welcome these proposed changes but it really does seem that Health Minister Greg Hunt has been dragged kicking and screaming to the table at five minutes to midnight,” Dr Phelps said.
“The simple reality is that the House of Representatives doesn’t sit again until November 26 and that is beyond the current opt-out date.
“Minister Hunt needs to urgently extend the opt-out period in order for the Parliament to do its job to negotiate and then pass appropriate amendments so that privacy and security concerns are properly addressed.”
The government has also promised to review MHR privacy provisions for 14- to 17-year-olds.