Govt’s Telstra cancer register contract criticised

Telstra earlier this year won a $220-million contract to establish and operate the National Cancer Screening Register

Labor’s shadow health minister, Catherine King, has launched an attack on the government over its decision to award to Telstra a contract to operate the new National Cancer Screening Register.

The National Cancer Screening Register Bill 2016 and the National Cancer Screening Register (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2016 are currently before the House of Representatives. The bills will create the National Cancer Screening Register, which will replace nine existing registers including the states’ cervical cancer register.

In May the Department of Health announced it had awarded the contract to establish and operate the register to Telstra. The $220 million contract has an initial term of five years with an option for a 10-year extension.

The government earmarked funding for the system in the 2015-16 budget, with the aim of establishing the register by May 2017.

Labor “strongly supports” the move to establish a national register, King said today.

However, the MP said that the bills have been “rushed” into parliament because the government had decided to award the contract to Telstra before any debate on the register’s merits and associated privacy and data protections.

There was no debate over “whether it is even appropriate for such sensitive data to be placed into the hands for the first time of a for-profit provider,” King said.

There are some “serious questions” for the government to answer of the process when it came to awarding a contract before the register was established, she added.

The decision will “put some of the most sensitive data into the hands of a private telecommunications company.” “It’s a big question and a big call,” she said. “Not one that we, frankly, support”.

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The new national register will hold information about every Australian eligible for cancer screening programs. “The register is not opt-in and an individual will only be able to opt out… of the register once it’s actually implemented,” King said.

Data held in the register will include individuals’ names, addresses, dates of birth, contact details, gender and sex, as well as Medicare item number, Medicare claims information and preferred GP or other health providers.

The register will also contain “extremely private and intimate health data” usually only disclosed to an individual’s GP, King said.

“Labor accepts that this information is necessary for the operation of the register, but we do not accept that Telstra – frankly with a questionable record of privacy breaches – should have Australians’ most private and sensitive health data.”

The MP moved that as an amendment to the motion for the bill’s second reading that “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for outsourcing Australians’ most sensitive health information–including Medicare data–to Telstra, and before passing the necessary legislation”.

Telstra declined to comment.

The government has accused Labor of playing politics with cancer.

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