The Medicare Smartcard, launched just two
years ago, has been scrapped despite spending $4.4 million on the development
of the card and a trial in Tasmania. The opposition says the move raises doubts about
the feasibility of the $1.1 billion health and welfare smart card announced in the
Budget.

Questioning in Senate Estimates has
revealed that the smartcard trial, launched by the Minister for Health Tony
Abbott in 2004, ended last Thursday, 25 May 2006.

As the centrepiece of HealthConnect, more
than $4.4 million was spent developing the card which featured a microchip with
far greater information capacity than the magnetic strip currently used on
Medicare cards. Fewer than 3,000 cards were issued in Tasmania under the
trial and only 1% of the population have ended up with a Medicare
smartcard.

“If they can’t run this trial why would any
Australian think the Government would properly run its whole-of-government
smartcard,” said Labor health spokeswoman Julia Gillard. At the same time, Labor is raising concerns
about the privacy implications of the smartcard plan.

Human Services Minister Joe Hockey has
refused to release an assessment of the privacy impact of a smart card that
could also be used as an ID card carried out by Clayton Utz. Hockey’s office
claims the data is now redundant, as the Government has decided not to pursue
the plan.

However, Shadow Minister for Public Accountability and Shadow Minister for Human
Services Kelvin Thomson says that “if the Government wants to win over the
Australian people on Smartcard it needs to be open and transparent, and take
people into its confidence.” The health and welfare smartcard will replace
the Medicare card and be compulsory for anyone wishing to claim Medicare payments
or welfare benefit.

Labor says industry concerns that the $1.1
billion project could be subject to serious cost blowouts have been confirmed
by revelations from Senate Estimates that the first two contracts awarded blew
their budgets.

Peter Fray

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