Medi­care web scare trig­gers crack­down call

The Weekend Australian - - THE NATION - DAVID CROWE

A se­cu­rity scare has trig­gered an of­fi­cial call for stronger checks on mil­lions of Medi­care cards in a clear warn­ing to the Turn­bull govern­ment about the threats to a vast sys­tem that pays $35 bil­lion in ben­e­fits each year.

A high-pow­ered govern­ment re­view is warn­ing that ac­cess to per­sonal card in­for­ma­tion has be­come too easy at a time of grow­ing fears about pay­ment fraud, iden­tity theft and other “il­licit ac­tiv­i­ties” that leave tax­pay­ers car­ry­ing the bill.

The re­port sin­gles out the lax con­trols on govern­ment phone ser­vices that an­swer 588,000 re­quests ev­ery year for per­sonal Medi­care num­bers, rais­ing ques- tions about the checks on those who gain ac­cess to the in­for­ma­tion.

Hu­man Ser­vices Min­is­ter Alan Tudge and Health Min­is­ter Greg Hunt will re­lease the find­ings to­day with a prom­ise to re­spond by the end of the year on the pro­pos­als to pro­tect 14 mil­lion Medi­care cards and the way they are used to prove — and some­times steal — an iden­tity.

The govern­ment sought the re­view af­ter re­ports in July that traders on the “dark web” were sell­ing per­sonal Medi­care names and num­bers, al­low­ing buy­ers to cre­ate false iden­ti­ties for gen­eral use as well as mak­ing false claims on the pub­lic health­care sys­tem.

The re­view, led by Peter Shergold, a for­mer sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment of Prime Min­is­ter and Cabi­net, does not put an es­ti­mate on the cost of Medi­care fraud but notes the $2.2bn es­ti­mated cost of iden­tity crime and calls for stricter con­trols on the cards.

The find­ings ap­pear likely to lead to sig­nif­i­cant changes to the govern­ment sys­tem that al­lows health­care providers to gain rel­a­tively easy ac­cess to card num­bers, for in­stance by call­ing an in­for­ma­tion line and pro­vid­ing a pa­tient’s name and date of birth.

The re­view says it has not seen any ev­i­dence of fraud­u­lent re­quests for Medi­care num­bers through the phone ser­vice but is “con­cerned about the po­ten­tial risks” and urges stricter con­trols.

In an­other key find­ing, it says there has been “no risk to pa­tients’ health records” but that it is “im­per­a­tive to main­tain the pri­vacy of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion” and re­tain con­fi­dence in the sys­tem.

As well as the 588,000 re­quests to the phone ser­vices ev­ery year, health­care providers put in 10.2 mil­lion searches to the Health Pro­fes­sional On­line Ser­vice over the web, al­low­ing them to ask for 500 card de­tails ev­ery day.

The Shergold re­port warns that there are no re­quire­ments for the providers to ob­tain con­sent from their pa­tients be­fore seek­ing the de­tails. It rec­om­mends changes to the rules so all health pro­fes­sion­als must ob­tain this con­sent be­fore seek­ing the card num­bers.

The re­port also calls for the phone line to be phased out over the next two years to halt the eas­i­est ac­cess to the card num­bers, although it says some phone ser­vices should be al­lowed for “ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances”.

The on­line ac­cess to 500 records in a sin­gle day is a cru­cial ser­vice for hospi­tals, given the need to treat pa­tients who might not have their Medi­care cards with them. Even so, the re­view sug­gests this ac­cess is lim­ited to 50 records a day.

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