'Medicare smartcard pilot in slow lane'
Karen Dearne, The Australian IT Section
21 February 2006

MEDICARE Australia has issued only 2450 Medicare smartcards out of an anticipated 40,000 since the national rollout began in Tasmania early last year.

More than $4.37 million has been spent to date on the Tasmanian card - which features a microchip on the front - Human Services departmental secretary Patricia Scott told a Senate estimates hearing last week.

A further $4 million was being sought for further development, she said.

The computing capacity of the chips could support a wide range of health-related applications.
Medicare Australia e-business manager David Trabinger has reported that 3619 Tasmanians (this number included family members who may be listed on one card) had expressed interest in taking up a smartcard.

Project planners had allowed for the issue of up to 40,000 cards, he said.

Since July 2004, when federal Health Minister Tony Abbott launched the program in Launceston, more than 13,000 invitations had been sent to people prior to the expiry of their existing Medicare cards, but some people had been unable to provide the necessary proof of identity documents, Mr Trabinger said.

Meanwhile, Human Services Minister Joe Hockey has proposed an Australian government smartcard that could be used to access services such as Centrelink and the Child Support Agency, as well as health benefits.

The value of smartcard technology in the health arena has been tested through a number of publicly funded projects.

Smart Health Solutions, for instance, is a private company offering electronic health record sharing over the internet secured by smart tokens that authenticate patient and provider access rights.

Its technology has evolved from the Smart Patient Data project funded by a $75,000 IT Online grant in 2000.

Two years later, the project consortium was awarded an extra $130,000 to develop a secure internet information exchange system for the health sector.

Today, Smart Health Solutions has alliances with card specialists Giesecke and Devrient, and Schlumberger, along with Brisbane Waters Private Hospital in NSW, the Alfred Hospital in Victoria, IBM and Sun Microsystems.

The Department of Veteran Affairs was involved in a trial at Brisbane Waters, where cards issued to some 600 veterans enabled the hospital to share information with GPs and specialists, while streamlining patient bookings and financial administration.

Telstra has also funded a Smart Health broadband project that allows urgent X-rays and medical images to be sent electronically.

At present, Medicare smartcards store the same data as a standard magstripe card (although people can choose to add a digital photo).

Data can only be accessed through a Medicare Australia card reader.

Tasmanians can view their data and access other information from online kiosks in Medicare offices. But Medicare smartcards are not supposed to be used outside the health system, or for general identification purposes.