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Thursday, 22 June 2006
Page: 2

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (9:06 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Privacy Legislation Amendment Bill 2006 makes amendments to the National Health Act 1953 and the Privacy Act 1988. These amendments address two areas: the collection of health information and the handling of genetic information.

In relation to health information, the amendments in schedule 1 of the bill will ensure that medical practitioners can continue to access health information that is available through the prescription shopping information service (PSIS), without being in breach of the Privacy Act.

The PSIS is a national hotline service run by Medicare Australia which began operation on 31 January 2005 as part of the prescription shopping budget measure. It was established to provide medical practitioners with information about patients they suspect may be obtaining prescription medicines in excess of their therapeutic needs. It does this by allowing registered prescribers to access information about their patient’s prescription status, if the patient has been identified under the program’s criteria.

The PSIS identifies a potential prescription shopper as a person who, in any three-month period:

  • obtains prescriptions from six or more different prescribers; or
  • has had supplied 25 or more target pharmaceutical benefits; or
  • 50 or more pharmaceutical benefits in total.

Since its inception, over 11,600 prescribers have registered to use the PSIS. These prescribers have made over 16,300 calls, and 5,100 of these calls have identified patients who meet the program’s criteria.

By providing prescribers with this information, the government is helping to ensure that Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) medicines are used in an appropriate and safe manner, while also helping to protect the integrity of the PBS for all Australians.

The Privacy Commissioner has issued temporary public interest determinations to ensure that the collection of information from the PSIS, without the consent of the patient, is not a breach of the Privacy Act. In doing so, the Privacy Commissioner considered that the public interest in medical practitioners collecting information from the PSIS outweighed to a substantial degree the public interest in adhering to the principles of the Privacy Act.

However, the temporary determinations expire on 22 December 2006, so it is appropriate that this issue be addressed permanently through legislative amendment. This is consistent with recommendation 83 made by the Privacy Commissioner in her report, Getting in on the act: the review of the private sector provisions of the Privacy Act 1988.

Accordingly, the bill will modify the National Health Act and the Privacy Act to permit an organisation to collect health information for the purposes of providing a health service, without initially obtaining the consent of the patient, where the collection is authorised by or under law.

These amendments will offer a permanent solution, allowing the PSIS to continue to operate past the expiration of the current determinations.

In relation to the handling of genetic information, schedule 2 of the bill implements some of the Australian Law Reform Commission and Australian Health Ethics Committee recommendations in their report, Essentially yours: the protection of human genetic information in Australia.

Genetic information is a type of personal information, but it is not a totally new type of information. It is a more sophisticated form of information that we have been dealing with for a long time.

The government agreed with the approach taken in the Australian Law Reform Commission and Australian Health Ethics Committee report that a separate regulatory regime for genetic information is unnecessary and that genetic information should be dealt with in the protective framework of the Privacy Act.

To that end, the bill will amend the definitions of ‘health information’ and ‘sensitive information’ in section 6 of the Privacy Act to expressly include genetic information. This will ensure that the collection, use and disclosure of genetic information will be given the additional protections provided for in the Privacy Act.

Genetic information that is or could be predictive of the health of an individual will be treated as health information for the purposes of the act. Genetic information that is not otherwise health information—for example the results of parentage or kinship tests—will be treated as sensitive information for the purposes of the act.

The bill also implements the report’s recommendation that a health professional be permitted to disclose genetic information about a patient to that patient’s genetic relative, where that disclosure is necessary to lessen or prevent a serious threat to an individual’s life, health or safety, even where the threat is not imminent.

The proposed amendment does not impose any obligation or duty on medical practitioners to disclose information. It merely permits them, if they choose to do so, to disclose genetic information to a genetic relative where there is a serious risk to the health of the genetic relative.

The bill further provides for the development of guidelines relating to the use or disclosure of genetic information to a genetic relative. These guidelines will be issued by the National Health and Medical Research Council and will be approved by the Privacy Commissioner.

This bill demonstrates the Australian government’s commitment to an effective and relevant privacy regime for Australia.

I commend the bill to the chamber.

Debate (on motion by Mr Edwards) adjourned.