‘People are not getting the message’
TODAY was supposed to be the deadline for Australians to opt out of the controversial My Health Record scheme.
The government was forced to extend that cut-off to January 31 yesterday, as the system's phone lines and website struggled to deal with a flood of frustrated people trying to opt out at the last minute.
There was another problem as well - many Australians still didn't understand what joining the My Health Record would mean for them.
Health Minister Greg Hunt went on TV this morning in an attempt to convince them it would be a good idea to sign up.
"If you are a mum, you will be able to have access to the vaccination records of your children," Mr Hunt told the Nine Network.
"If you have got older parents and you don't know what medicines they have been on, and they are in an extreme moment in a hospital, the emergency department will be able to protect them and ensure they are not taking something for which they have an allergy.
"It is common sense and something that six million Australians have adopted. It will give all Australians access to their medical records, which should be a basic right."
"You have said that until you are blue in the face, over and over again. Some people aren't getting the message. Is it safe or not?" host Karl Stefanovic pressed.
"Yes. Absolutely," Mr Hunt responded.
"The Digital Health Agency is absolutely clear, there have been no security breaches.
"This is safer than the record at the general practice. It's absolutely safer than the record which might be at the pharmacy. Above all else though, it means for the first time you can access your own record. And in the case of an emergency, they can potentially save your life."
Mr Hunt was asked why he had reneged on his previous insistence the deadline would not be extended.
"This is to give people more time. I'm happy to do that. This system has been a decade-and-a-half in the making," he said.
"People can opt out at any time during their lives. That is one of the things which may not have been fully understood.
"There is no single deadline."
The extension will also allow the government to pass legislation toughening safeguards for patients' privacy before the deadline passes.
Mr Hunt said six million Australians had already established records with the scheme, and records for the rest of the population would be created after January 31, excepting those who decide to opt out.
He said "just over 1.1 million" people, or about 4 per cent of the population, had already made that choice.
Many more tried to yesterday, with limited success.
"My wife has been on hold for an hour and it has just dropped out," a reader from Adelaide, Ben, told news.com.au.
"I've been on hold a couple times and it has dropped out, including this morning. I was on hold for 15-20 minutes before it dropped out."
Another reader, Elena, said she attempted to opt out a few days ago without success. She tried again "quite a few times" yesterday morning, via the website and on the phone, but it "just did not work".
"It is unbelievable how disorganised this process is," she said.
"The online system does not work and when you try to phone, it just hangs up on you. There is no automated message or any sort of system in place that can cope with the demand.
"I'm really against my records being on the system and I am unable to opt out. This is just ridiculous, and makes me feel angry and helpless and not in control of my information."
But a spokesman for the Australian Digital Health Agency said reports the system was not operational were incorrect.
"The opt-out website and the My Health Record Help Line are both operational. We are experiencing high demand, which has slowed the system down, and some people have experienced difficulties opting out this morning. These issues have now been resolved," he said.
"The agency anticipated higher call volumes and has increased the number of help line operators available to support callers.
"A call back feature has been enabled allowing people to leave their details for a customer service representative to return their call and process their request to opt out.
"If a person leaves their details for a call back, the help line will return the call over the coming days to opt the person out. No record will be created for individuals in this circumstance."
Labor says the My Health Record scheme "promises huge benefits" to Australians, but the government's "botched rollout", including the switch from an opt-in to and opt-out model, has "seriously undermined public trust" in it.
You still have plenty of time to opt out, should you wish. The easiest way is to go to www.myhealthrecord.gov.au, or to call 1800 723 471.