Temper tantrums and the tortured path of health IT
All eyes were on Canberra this week as the upper house's community affairs committee put the Department of Health and its agencies under the microscope during Senate budget estimates, but it turns out it was in the lower house where the real fireworks were about to go off.
Long-term eHealth watchers have become used to estimates hearings being quite bruising affairs, particularly when it comes to the tortured progress of the PCEHR/MyHR over the last seven or so years. But it was a much more agreeable atmosphere this week when Australian Digital Health Agency CEO Tim Kelsey fronted up with chief operating officer Bettina McMahon, core systems head Ronan O'Connor and chief medical adviser Meredith Makeham.
The agency gang was questioned for a good hour and a half by a cross section of senators – Labor's Murray Watt, the Greens' Richard Di Natale and the Centre Alliance's Stirling Griff – and besides a few probing questions from Senator Watt on the $100 million+ communications campaign for the My Health Record opt-out arrangements, it seemed the senators were mainly interested in how the system worked rather than scoring any political points.
ADHA revealed a bit more about the sums being spent on the campaign – $28m for awareness, of which $4.8m is for paid advertising, $55m for training and $34m for extra help at the contact centre – and there was further clarification that while there will be no national TV ad campaign, there'll be plenty of other stuff.
Our readers will no doubt disagree with this; in our poll last week we asked whether a national TV ad was required and 73 per cent of you said yes.
The new deputy secretary for health systems policy, Caroline Edwards, acquitted herself well in answering policy questions on the secondary use of data, but despite the time spent on the My Health Record, there wasn't really anything new to report.
Sent to entertain us instead was Senator Watt's favourite problem child, the National Cancer Screening Register. NCSR taskforce head Bettina Konti was again on the rack at estimates – she will be pleased to escape this torture when she takes up her new job with the ACT government – admitting that the register is still not fully functional. The transfer of historical data from the state and territory cervical cancer screening registers is still to be finalised and labs still have to consult the old registers, but Ms Konti insists it will be complete at the end of June. Work will then recommence at some stage on getting the bowel cancer register digitised.
The NCSR has been a bit of a disaster for many, not the least of which is the company building it. Such have been the delays that Telstra Health hasn't even been paid for their work yet. Ms Konti revealed that less than $11 million of the $220 million contract had been paid out and her colleague Lisa Studdert confirmed that the delay in payment was due to Telstra missing its milestones.
Senator Watt is still fuming that his party was told back in October 2016 that they were putting women's lives at risk by questioning the awarding of the contract to Telstra Health and holding up the passage of legislation enabling the creation of the register.
As the week went on it wasn't just Labor's feelings or Telstra Health's reputation that have been burned by the episode. After the Herald Sun revealed that Health Minister Greg Hunt had had a little tanty and heaped abuse on an unsuspecting Northern Territory mayor, it came out that he'd been in a bit of trouble before over his temper. Mr Hunt was forced to admit in parliament that there was some truth behind the rumours that he'd had a set-to with former DoH secretary Martin Bowles and it was over none other than the NCSR. Mr Hunt's behaviour was such that Mr Bowles complained to the prime minister.
There was always some suspicion over why Mr Bowles suddenly resigned to take up a job running Calvary Health Care last September, just three years after taking on the top job at Health. Rumour had it that the secretary and the minister did not get along, but it seems the relationship had become so toxic that Mr Bowles upped and left without a backward glance.
Coming not long after his disastrous experience showing contempt for the Victorian Supreme Court, a cloud now hangs over Mr Hunt's future, adding to the woes of a government seemingly intent on shooting itself in the foot so many times it is in need of a prosthesis. After all, Mr Hunt was drafted in as health minister following Sussan Ley's spectacular self-destruction over her interest in the Gold Coast, and both have been forced to spend most of their time putting out the fires started by their colleague Peter Dutton in his short, unlamented tenure in Health.
Whether Mr Hunt's fireman performance is good enough to save him we don't know, and as the smoke of a federal election gets a bit stronger, newly elected AMA president Tony Bartone doesn't seem keen on helping things much. The Melbourne GP says the first thing he'll bring up in his first meeting with Mr Hunt is the dire state of general practice remuneration, especially for things that GPs routinely do but are not recompensed for, such as looking after their patients' My Health Record.
Dr Bartone's election was our top story for the week. We'll see if Mr Hunt is still in his position when the federal one is called.
That brings us to our poll for this week: Has Greg Hunt been an effective health minister?
To vote in our weekly polls, sign up for our weekend edition or leave your comments below.
Our poll last week asked: Do you think ADHA needs to run a national TV ad to publicise opt-out? It's pretty clear our readers think an ad is required: 73 per cent said yes, 27 per cent said no.