Health minister Greg Hunt has rejected the recommendation from a senate inquiry into My Health Record to extend the scheme’s opt-out period by another 12 months. The inquiry also called for sweeping changes to the ehealth scheme as Australians have just weeks remaining to opt out.

An extension beyond the current November 15th opt-out deadline is necessary to strengthen My Health Record’s privacy and security provisions, according to the senate inquiry’s final report. Labor senators also argued an independent privacy review is necessary.

Minister Hunt already extended the scheme’s controversial opt-out period once in August, amid public backlash over privacy and security flaws. But another will not happen, Hunt says, so as to not “delay the benefits to patients”.

“The opt-out date has already been extended and the opt outs are travelling at a significantly lower rate than expected,” a spokesperson for Minister Greg Hunt said.

“The government will review and respond to other items in the report,” according to the spokesperson.

In or Out

While switching to an opt-out model will add millions of records to the scheme, improving its utility, the move may have come at the cost of patient privacy and security, according to the inquiry.

“Some evidence received during this inquiry suggests that an unreasonable compromise has been struck between ensuring the utility of the system, through an opt-out mechanism and low default access settings, and safeguarding the privacy and safety of healthcare recipients,” the report said.

The latest figures provided by the Digital Health Agency (DHA), responsible for operating My Health Record, show that in the first two months of the opt-out period 900,000 people opted out of My Health Record and less than 200,000 opted in.

More than six million Australians already have a My Health Record under the previous opt-in model.

According to the DHA those who have taken the opportunity to opt-out represent around three per cent of eligible people.

But next month any eligible Australians who have not opted out will have a My Health Record automatically generated which can include sensitive medical information. The move to opt out was announced by the DHA in May sparking fears over privacy and security for a scheme that had not been designed for an opt-out model and can contain sensitive health information.

As the backlash grew, the government moved to strengthen the underlying legislation of My Health Record. Two senate inquiries were launched, one into proposed changes to the underlying legislation and a second Labor initiated inquiry into the scheme itself.

The inquiry into the legislation recommended the proposed changes be passed, but Labor senators argued the inquiry had revealed “serious flaws” and the MHR legislation was “woefully inadequate”.

Time and changes needed: inquiry

The broader inquiry, which delivered its findings last week, noted the proposed legislation improvements but found “further amendments are necessary”. A 12 month extension of the opt-out period and a more comprehensive communication campaign is needed to inform Australians of the risks and benefits of My Health Record, according to the inquiry.

The report recommended several improvements are needed to how records can be accessed including restricting access of third parties, like employers and insurers, and the secondary use of health data for commercial purposes.

The committee also recommended that more provisions are required to protect vulnerable groups such as children and people fleeing domestic violence.

Shadow minister for health and medicare, Catherine King, said “A Labor-initiated inquiry into the My Health Record – which Greg Hunt dismissed as a ‘stunt’ – has uncovered a number of new privacy and security concerns.”

“Labor has been calling for a suspension of the rollout since July but the Government has spent months insisting this wasn’t necessary. It’s time for the Government to admit it was wrong and change course before it’s too late.”

Government senators respond

The Coalition senators involved in the inquiry rejected the committee view that an extension is necessary and said the opt-out approach “has the support of every major health peak body”.

They argued ample time had been given to opt out and the DHA had implemented a “comprehensive multi-channelled campaign”.

“We therefore consider that a 12 month extension recommended by the committee to be excessive and unnecessary.”

The inquiry recommendation to add user pins to patient records by default was rejected by Liberal senators, citing challenges around verifying pins via postal mail and patients not being able to remember their pins.

Coalition senators also disagreed with the recommendation that individual My Health Record not be made available for secondary use without the individual’s explicit consent. They argued making data opt-in for secondary use like research would “greatly diminish the potential data pool and limit the potential benefits”.

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