Thursday, 26 May 2016 22:27

Telstra attacked over $220 million cancer screening register contract win Featured


The federal government has awarded a contract estimated to be worth up to $220 million to Telstra Health to construct and manage a new National Cancer Screening Register, a decision which has been attacked by union peak body the ACTU and not-for-profit group, Pro Bono Australia, in defence of a not-for-profit which unsuccessfully tendered for the contract.

Under the five-year contract tendered by the Department of Health Services, Telstra Health’s growing health services business will develop the national bowel cancer register, as well as eight state and territory-based cervical cancer registers, into a single digital cancer screening register.

Critics, including some in the healthcare sector, have raised data privacy and governance issues, although under the contract the government will retain ownership of the intellectual property and data stored on the new register, which is expected to start operating in the first half of 2017.

But, the ACTU has attacked the decision, accusing the government of turning over a “sensitive national cancer screening register”, and claiming it is just the first step in the “selling-off of Australia’s public medical records system to corporate operators”.

According to ACTU president Ged Kearney, the contracting of Telstra to house individuals' private health records “demonstrates this government’s commitment to privatising the health care system and making it out of reach for millions of Australians”.

The ACTU says it has door-knocked in hundreds of neighbourhoods around the country over the past six months and the message it has heard “loud and clear is that voters do not want their sensitive health records handled by private companies.  They do not want Medicare privatised”.  

“Today’s announcement indicates the Turnbull government’s intention to take us down the path of a US-style healthcare system. This record-sell-off is just the tip of the iceberg, opening the door to privatisation across the board.

“Telstra’s recent track record of its services failing millions of customers on multiple occasions doesn’t endear confidence so why would anyone want their medical records handed over to it?

“Hard working families will be left paying a high price for healthcare, while also paying taxes to fund a healthcare system geared toward generating corporate profit for private companies.

“All around the country we have seen protests in the streets, communities standing up for vital Medicare services, yet Malcolm Turnbull is determined that we have a US-style health system where private operators benefit at the expense of working families.”

In its criticism of the Telstra decision, Pro Bono Australia, which describes itself as one of Australia’s first social businesses and a central online hub for the not-for-profit sector, expressed dismay that Telstra had been chosen.

Pro Bono says the “controversial move” will see sensitive medical records placed under corporate management and “signals an end to the current state-based registers for cervical cancer screening programs and the national bowel cancer screening register”.

“Previously the responsibility of compiling and maintaining the registers had fallen to state-based not-for-profit organisations, including the Victorian Cytology Service (VCS) which was overlooked for the national contract in favour of Telstra, despite its experience in the field,” the statement on its website says.

Pro Bono says Fairfax Media — which originally broke the news of the Telstra contract win on Thursday morning — has reported that Telstra Health has approached VCS for access to its expertise, staff, and other resources.

VCS Associate Professor Marion Saville, in a statement on the Pro Bono site, says VCS is disappointed with the decision.

“We can confirm that VCS was shortlisted for the NCSR. We are, of course, very disappointed in the outcome of the tender process considering our longstanding expertise in operating successful cancer screening registers.

“As an organisation we will continue to work constructively towards the goal of protecting Australians from the impact of cancer through screening.

“We will be talking to the Victorian and Australian governments to ensure that we can continue our important contributions to Australia’s cancer screening programs.”

In another indication of health industry concerns over the deal with Telstra, according to Pro Bono the peak body for public and not-for-profit hospitals, the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA), has also called on the federal government to provide more details about the reported plan.

It reports AHHA chief executive Alison Verhoeven saying that, “Integrating the smaller registries into a single entity has the potential to greatly reduce inefficiencies and support one of the key objectives of primary health Networks, to increase cancer screening in their communities”.

“However, governance issues surrounding the plan to allow Telstra Health to manage the data obtained through the screenings, as reported in the [the media] today, require further clarification.

“We call on the government to provide details about who the data owner and custodian will be, who will control access to the data and how much it will cost.

“There must also be clarification on what public reporting on the data will be done and on who will compile those reports,” Verhoeven says.

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham - retired in 2020. He is a veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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