news The Federal Department of Health has moved to block the public release of a report reviewing the troubled Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records project, stating that there are not sufficient public interest reasons for the report to be released, 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 last year 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.
The Minister’s statement said: “[The] report provides a comprehensive plan for the future of electronic health records in Australia. Mr Dutton said 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.'”
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.
Subsequently, Delimiter filed an notice of appeal with the Department, asking explicitly that the Minister’s office be included as a search location for the document. In addition, Delimiter filed a second Freedom of Information request with the Department for the document, under the assumption that a copy may have been filed with the Department at a latter date.
Late last week the Department wrote back to Delimiter, stating that it had decided that the document would not be released under Freedom of Information laws. In the letter (which you can view in full here in PDF format), Linda Jackson, Assistant Secretary of the eHealth Policy Branch of the department’s eHealth Division, acknowledged that there were public interest reasons why the report should be released.
However, ultimately Jackson used section 47C(1) of the Freedom of Information Act to block the release of the report, on the grounds that its release would “disclose opinion, advice or recommendation obtained, prepared or recorded, or consultation or deliberation that has taken place in the deliberative processes of an agency or Minister or the Government of the Commonwealth.”
“If the contents of the review were to be made public, the matters presently under consideration … would be prematurely exposed to scrutiny which would undermine the integrity of the decision-making process of government,” Jackson wrote. “It is in the interest of the Australian community as a whole that consideration of the report’s recommendations and analysis be conducted in circumstances of confidentiality to government and those public officials who need to know relevant details.”
“I note in this context that key stakeholder groups, including peak clinical bodies, were given the opportunity to make submissions to the review team.”
The news comes, however, as pressure grows on the Government to release the report. Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton, who was one of three experts who produced the report, told the Financial Review several weeks ago that he had believed the report was going to be released in January, then February, then April.
“eHealth is really on hold at the moment in Australia . . . everything is waiting on clarification as to the direction,” he reportedly said. The AFR reported the document recommends the PCEHR system be retained but with changes made to its operation.
Delimiter plans to appeal the Department’s move to block the release of the report.