'Health smartcard fizzles' (Karen Dearne, The Australian IT Section, 30 May 2006)

THE Medicare smartcard launched in Tasmania two years ago has been quietly scrapped, a Senate estimates hearing has been told.

More than $4.5 million was spent on developing the card, which featured a microchip with far greater data capacity than the magnetic strips on current Medicare cards.

Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott launched the smartcard in Launceston in 2004 as part of the now stalled HealthConnect electronic patient record program. It is understood only 1 per cent of eligible Tasmanians expressed interest in registering for the card.

Labor Party Queensland Senator Claire Moore said news that the program had ended was a surprise. "We were informed by Human Services officials that the Tasmanian trial had ended as of last Thursday, and that the lessons from it would flow into the wider access card project," Ms Moore said. "I'm wondering when they would have got around to telling us if we hadn't asked the question."

Since the smartcard was developed, Medicare Australia has become part of the Human Services mega-department, which is planning its own multiple-agency card.

A spokeswoman for Human Services Minister Joe Hockey said no final decision had been made on the card, but the Tasmanian trial was being reassessed in light of Government approval for the access card.

"We're trying to work out how to manage the transition," she said. "We don't want people to come in and register for the Medicare smartcard and then have to get a new one when the access card is up and running.

"We may be in a position to announce what's happening later in the week."

People who already have the Medicare smartcard will be able to continue using it, but the planned national extension of the card will not proceed.

Problems with establishing proof of identity for enrollment in the program were revealed in Senate estimates hearings in February. Some Tasmanians had been denied cards because they could not provide the necessary documents.

Meanwhile, Mr Hockey was busy selling the virtues of the proposed government access card to the Australian Medical Association conference in Adelaide on Saturday.

"Customers won't have to deal with so much red tape and bureaucracy, as their cards will prove who they are and remove the necessity to repeatedly go through the proof of identity process."

A one-off registration process would be "as convenient as possible", he said.

Mobile teams would be formed to help register people living in nursing homes and remote communities as the card was phased in from 2008.

Mr Hockey said the "more radical fringes" of the privacy lobby had tried to reignite an Australia Card debate, "however the public sees through the tired rhetoric".

"The access card will be your passport to government services," he said. "Rather than carrying around multiple cards that are susceptible to fraud, the card will serve as a set of electronic keys. This will enhance the individual's privacy."

Mr Hockey said the access card was not a national identity card because individuals would control the information held on it. It would not be mandatory to register for it, and people would not have to carry it at all times.

"To put it bluntly, you won't have to take the access card with you to the beach," he said. "Patients, for example, will not need to present the card at a doctor's surgery unless they want a Medicare rebate.

"When your details change, for example if you move house, you'll be able to update your information through an online portal or by visiting one department. The card will then be updated when you next put it into a government terminal."

Agencies would be better able to monitor eligibility for concessions - "smart technology allows us to match the cancellation of an entitlement with the card immediately", he said.

Information contained on the card and in the database would be protected from unauthorised access. "The penalties, including jail terms, that apply to Human Services agency staff for inappropriately accessing a database, may even be increased".