news The Department of Health has rejected a Freedom of Information request for a report reviewing the Federal Government’s troubled Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records project, claiming that it does not have a copy of the document, despite the fact that Health Minister Peter Dutton announced in December that he had received it.
The project was initially funded in the 2010 Federal Budget to the tune of $466.7 million after years of health industry and technology experts calling for development and national leadership in e-health and health identifier technology to better tie together patients’ records and achieve clinical outcomes. The project is overseen by the Department of Health in coalition with the National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA).
However, in July the Government revealed it had failed to meet it initial 500,000 target for adoption of the system, with only close to 400,000 Australians using the system at that point.
Due to the problems, on 4 November new Coalition Government Health Minister Peter Dutton kicked off a promised review of the PCEHR project. The review was to be led by Richard Royle, Executive Director of the UnitingCare Health group in Queensland, with the assistance of Dr Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association and Andrew Walduck, Chief Information Officer of Australia Post.
On 20 December, only a month and a half after the review was initiated, Dutton issued a statement noting that he had received its report. “The review of the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records (PCEHR) system has been completed,” the Minister’s statement at the time read. “Health Minister Peter Dutton today received the report from the review team headed by the Executive Director of the UnitingCare Health Group, Mr Richard Royle.”
However, Dutton has not committed to publicly releasing the findings of the PCEHR Review. As a consequence, in early January, Delimiter filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Health seeking to have the full text of the document released under the Freedom of Information Act.
In late January, Rob Schreiber, acting assistant secretary for eHealth Policy for the Department of Health, wrote back to Delimiter claiming that he could not find a copy of the report within the department.
“I have decided to refuse access … as the document did not exist in the department on the date of receipt of your request, I have decided to refuse access under section 24A of the FOI Act,” Schreiber wrote, in an extremely brief letter. The letter is available online in PDF format.
It appears, from Schreiber’s letter, that there are several possibilities behind the rejection. Either the Department of Health is interpreting its Freedom of Information request duties to explicitly exclude the office of the Health Minister, or that Dutton had not actually received the PCEHR report as he had stated in December.
A third possibility opened up by the wording of the letter is that the report did not exist in the Department as at 5 January, when the FOI request was filed, but that it does now.
Delimiter has subsequently filed both an appeal as well as a new FOI request with the department, in a continued effort to source the PCEHR report. Both specifically mention the fact that the Minister’s office must be included as a search location in the FOI request.
In December, Dutton claimed the report — compiled over just a month and a half — “provides a comprehensive plan for the future of electronic health records in Australia”, adding that the Government would now take time to consider the review recommendations and would respond in due course. “I sincerely thank the members of the review panel for their work on this matter,” the Minister said.
Delimiter’s FoI request noted that there were there significant public interest reasons for the review to be released, given that the PCEHR project was an item of significant debate during the 2013 Federal Election, and that the report would provide the wider health community in Australia with significant information that would inform the future debate of similar electronic health initiatives.
The news comes as departments and agencies increasingly appear to be interpreting the Freedom of Information Act extremely strictly in what appears to be an effort to block the release of critical documents which it would be in the public interest to have released.
Earlier this week, for example, an attempt by Delimiter to retrieve the ‘Blue Book’ incoming ministerial briefing of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull under Freedom of Information laws failed, with the Federal Government as a whole appearing to standardise around interpreting its rights as blocking such documents wholesale, despite the fact that previous similar documents have been released under FOI. Other similar FOI requests have similarly been rejected by other Federal Government departments recently, such as the Attorney-General’s Department.
What a farce. The Health Minister claims he has received the PCEHR report, yet the Department claims it can’t find it for Freedom of Information purposes. This is worse (or perhaps better) than an episode of Yes, Minister. Let’s see what they come up with next month when they respond to my new requests. “We’ve misplaced it”, maybe?