Healthcare Identifiers Bill passed

Medicare Australia expected to assign unique healthcare identifiers in October

The Federal Government passed through the Healthcare Identifiers Bill 2010 and the Healthcare Identifiers (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010 this week, following four months of debate and a last minute push by the Department of Health and Ageing and the National eHealth Transition Authority (NeHTA).

The Senate is believed to have passed the bills at approximately 8.45pm on 25 June, as Australian Parliament House wrapped the final day of sitting before the winter break. The bills allow e-health authority NeHTA and service lead Medicare Australia to begin assigning unique, 16-digit individual healthcare identifiers to the Australian public within the 1 July timeframe originally stipulated under the Government proposal.

Concerns the bill wouldn't be passed before July arose after the health minister, Nicola Roxon, agreed to amendments tabled by the Opposition. The amendments - some of which were added to the main bill - would effectively see Medicare Australia a permanent operator of the identifier service, pending a review of the legislation in two years or other directives from Parliament. A final contract between Medicare Australia and NeHTA is believed to have been signed, but a spokesperson for NeHTA failed to confirm this.

However, NeHTA clinical lead, Nathan Pinskier, told Computerworld Australia that the program is unlikely to go live before October, as Medicare Australia soft launches the service for testing and compliance.

"As I understand the numbers can now be allocated, and once there's clarity and confirmation that the service does exactly what it's supposed to do, the program will commence with the broader community," Pinskier said. "The last thing you want to do is release numbers into the wild that don't meet requirements."

The three month soft launch will result in a comprehensive roll out of the service in October, with doctors, hospitals and the Australian public able to ring Medicare Australia to find out the number. The Health Professionals Online Services (HPOS) web portal will also be revamped to be compatible with the service, and is expected to be ready at the same time as the a full roll out of the service commences.

A secure business-to-business connection through clinical software is also planned, but has been held back due to lack of clarification in vendor agreements, and a poor take-up of testing services by software vendors. A further 17 vendors have signed developer agreements to use the Medicare Australia testing environment in the past month - bringing it to a total of 20 - but both NeHTA and the health department expects doctors to use the software aspect of the service only once they refresh their own IT systems.

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