news The Department of Health has stated it does not believe there is a public interest case for the Federal Government’s review of the troubled Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records project to be released publicly, despite the fact that Health Minister Peter Dutton has stated the document contains “a comprehensive plan for the future of electronic health records in Australia”.
The PCEHR 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. 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. “Their report provides a comprehensive plan for the future of electronic health records in Australia,” the Minister said at the time.
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. Although the department initially stated it did not have a copy of the document at the time of the initial FOI request, a subsequent FOI request showed that the department had by then obtained a copy.
In early March, the Department wrote back to Delimiter confirming that it had found the document, but seeking processing charges of $244.05 for its retrieval and decision-making time regarding the release of its contents.
Delimiter appealed the charges on the basis that there is a significant public interest in the release of the document, given that the PCEHR project is being closely watched as a landmark project which will heavily influence the development of other e-health projects around Australia, and that Dutton has stated the document “provides a comprehensive plan for the future of electronic health records in Australia”.
In what appears to be an unorthodox move, given the significance of the PCEHR review, and the wide-ranging impact of the PCEHR system on all Australians as well as the entire health system, last week the department wrote back to Delimiter noting that the application for charges to be waived on public interest grounds was not waived as there was no public interest justification for the document to be released.
“Giving access will be in the public interest where it will be of benefit to the public at large,” wrote Linda Jackson, Assistant Secretary of the eHealth Policy Branch within the Department of Health’s eHealth division. You can read Jackson’s full letter online in PDF format.
“It is not enough that the information in the document sought is interesting or of mere curiousity value to the public at large. In it also not sufficient that the document is of benefit to the applicant.”
“On balance, I am not satisfied that there is a general public interest, or the interest of a substantial section of the public in the information in the document. There is, accordingly, no basis for me to reduce or waive the charge on the ground of public interest. Consequently, I have decided to impose the charges in full.”
Jackon’s refusal to waive access charges relating to the PCEHR review does not represent the final stage in getting the document released. Delimiter has now paid the initial deposit required for the department to start processing the document. From here, the department will start assessing the case for the document, or sections of it, to be released. If the release of the document is subsequently denied, there will be several opportunities for appeal.
In a Senate Estimates session several weeks ago, Health Department secretary, Professor Jane Halton, confirmed there had been “ongoing discussions” with Dutton in relation to the review, but could not confirm whether there were plans to release the document publicly.
The continued news around the PCEHR review comes as departments and agencies increasingly appear to be interpreting the Freedom of Information Act extremely strictly in the wake of the Federal Election in September, 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.
Several weeks ago, 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.
It is simply preposterous for the Department of Health to interpret the FOI Act to claim that there is no public interest in getting the PCEHR review released. A document which the Minister has stated “provides a comprehensive plan for the future of electronic health records in Australia” clearly has a public interest rationale to be released. Consequently, I will continue my efforts to get this document released — as I, unlike much of the Federal Parliament and Government, am directly working towards the public interest.