Why more than a million Australians have opted-out of MyHealth Records

Nicholas McCallum

Shorten calls for halt to the rollout that endangers Australians' private health data. 

The ETU lobbied for, and secured, a recent Senate inquiry into the security and safeguards surrounding the controversial My Health Records scheme which has now recommended Australian’s ability to opt-out of the scheme be extended for a full 12 months.

Labor Leader Bill Shorten has even called for the scheme to be halted pending a privacy review. But Liberal Health Minister Greg Hunt is forging ahead despite the inquiry’s findings.

The recommendation of another extension comes after the Electrical Trades Union contacted members across the country in August urging them to get informed about the federal government’s MyHealth Record scheme.

During the hearings in late September it was revealed that more than 900,000 people have opted-out of the scheme with hundreds more opting out every day, confirming the ETU’s warnings were not unfounded. By late October the number of opt-outs climbed past 1.1 million.

“We don’t want our members or their families’ private health data to be there for everyone to see, especially if the people who see it could pass on that info to a boss or an insurer,” said Allen Hicks, ETU National Secretary.

“The family doctor viewing your medical history is one thing, but what about the doctor doing your pre-employment health check? What are they going to do with your entire medical history?”

It’s the ETU’s firm belief that the current system is at risk of IT security breaches and that it could expose ETU members’ private health information to too many prying eyes.

Recent warnings have shown that domestic violence victims could be exposed if partners were to access MyHealth data about their children while health industry insiders warned a culture of lax security would leave countless patients vulnerable simply due to carelessness.

The ETU was one of the first organisations to raise its concerns with the then-Turnbull Government that our members personal health information would be open to exploitation from hackers or abuse or carelessness.

“The government has a very sorry record when it comes to safeguarding Australians’ online information,” Hicks said.

“It was caught out by serious vulnerabilities when it pushed the Census online in 2016 and we all know how it’s been used and abused with the personal information of people on the Centrelink database – including handing one woman’s file to a journalist because she was critical of Turnbull and his minister.

“Abusing a citizen’s private data like that really sends shivers down the spine.”

You can opt-out of the MyHealth record system here

Health Minister Hunt initially dismissed public concerns and calls for an inquiry as a “stunt”, but he soon backed down and agreed to extend the opt-out period for one month following pressure from unions, the ALP and a range of minor parties.

Despite the Senate inquiry recommendations, Hunt said he would not buckle on another extension, however the government would "review and respond to other items in the report".

ETU National Policy Officer Trevor Gauld spoke at the inquiry, along with the ACTU and other unions, to share members’ concerns about what has proved to be a bungled scheme.

Gauld made it clear that the ETU was “not ideologically opposed” to a digital health record system, but in its current form it was “open slather” on patient privacy.

One likely scenario Gauld illustrated to the committee was if a worker was going for a pre-employment health check and the “doctor is mates with the employer, who's given them a very longstanding contract to provide all of their pre-employment medical services over a period of 30 years”.

After the appointment, with no one around, who’s to know what’s relayed back to the employer.

“How do you know? All the prospective worker gets is a phone call saying, 'Sorry, unfortunately you didn’t get the job,’” Gauld suggested.

ETU National Policy Officer Trevor Gauld at the MyHealth enquiry in Canberra.

 

The Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) the government body charged with managing the scheme, admitted this kind of scenario was possible during a meeting with the ETU held in July but soon backflipped when put under scrutiny, and warned that anyone who accessed the data in this way would face two years prison. But this could be circumvented.

Lance McCallum, the ACTU’s National Campaign Coordinator, explained the system was fundamentally flawed because medical professionals could get around the penalties the ADHA claimed would prevent misuse under the MyHealth Data Act by simply using a different patient identifier, covered under a different act.

“If there were an employer nominated doctor who chose to use a Medicare number instead of a health identifier number, obviously the protections in the Healthcare Identifiers Act wouldn't be enlivened and wouldn't apply,” he told the committee.

The ETU also raised serious questions about who owned the data captured in the MyHealth Record with the current CEO of ADHA up to his neck in privatised versions of the system which were rolled out in the UK.  

The ALP’s shadow spokeswoman on health, Catherine King, said with the opt-out period ending in mid-November she expects the number of people withdrawing from the scheme to keep growing.

“It’s clear now just how badly the Government’s rollout has undermined public support for a system that could deliver enormous benefits,” she said with a call to suspend the scheme so public trust can be restored.

“Labor supports a national digital health record – which is why we created the pre-cursor to this system when we were last in Government.”

“But the Government’s failure to explain its shift from our opt-in model to an opt-out model has fuelled suspicion and scepticism.”

Having already been extended a month, the opt-out period ends on November 15. With the now Morrison Government yet changing its mind on the recommended 12-month opt-out extension now is the time for ETU members to get informed and either set your security settings in the MyHealth Record or opt-out – after all, you can always opt back in once the problems are fixed.


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