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14 Jul 2017

The Federal Government has commissioned a major independent review of the way doctors and other healthcare providers access Medicare records, in light of a recent report of Medicare numbers being obtained by criminals for fraudulent activities.

The review, announced by Health Minister Greg Hunt and Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, will examine online security and try to ascertain how private information can be sold over the “dark internet” as was revealed in a Guardian Australia investigative report.

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon will join the review panel, to be headed by former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary Peter Shergold and to report to Government by September 30 this year.

Dr Gannon said he hoped the review would achieve a balance between greater security and maintaining a system where up to 45,000 patients a day are able to see a doctor and to access Medicare even without presenting their Medicare card details.

“Certainly we’re concerned about the breaches, and they are a problem. But to put it in perspective, we’re aware of something like just over 100 Medicare card details being available on the dark web,” he said.

“This system is facilitating the care of roughly 4 per cent of people who turn up to a doctor's surgery and making sure they get seen in a timely way.

“We don't want to throw out that timely access, but we might need to look at tightening up the security aspects.”

About 200,000 Australian doctors and medical staff check up to 45,000 patient records a day. The review could recommend that such access be tightened.

The Health Professionals Online Services portal is used to facilitate this access, and helps people in emergency situations to access immediate medical treatment without their Medicare card.

But the system has hardly changed since its introduction in 2009.

“The Government wants to ensure that there is increased security in a system which is important to both patients and doctors,” Mr Tudge said.

“The system, which has not been significantly altered since being brought in eight years ago, has to be both convenient and utterly secure.

“The review team will examine this balance to determine its adequacy in today’s context.”

Dr Gannon said the AMA warmly welcomed the review and was keen to participate in it.

He added, though, that it should not restrict in any way people’s access to health care.

“I won't presage what’s going to be involved in the review, and certainly I’m not the person who will bring IT expertise to this,” Dr Gannon said.

“But what we will be making a case for is that this is a system that is used by about 200,000 patients every week, facilitating their care.  

“It would be a shame to throw out that system because one or maybe only two people have taken advantage of a system for criminal advantage.”

According to the Guardian report, one of the media outlet’s reporters bought his own Medicare card number on the dark web for less than $30.

The Opposition has welcomed the review, but says the breach of security highlights serious flaws in the system.

“The announcement of this review does not wipe clean the Turnbull Government’s complete incompetence in handling this breach,” Acting Shadow Health Minister Julie Collins said.

The Government has emphasised that a Medicare card number alone does not provide access to any medical or clinical records.

An investigation into the security breach is currently underway by the Australian Federal Police.





Published: 14 Jul 2017