Australia's Shadow Minister for Health and Medicare Catherine King has accused Telstra of delaying the National Cancer Screening Register again, claiming the register will not be fully operational until March next year. "The government said that this register and test would prevent around 140 cases of cervical cancer every year -- now it has been delayed by almost 12 months, they need to come clean about the deadly toll of this delay," King said. "The national register will not be able to send cervical screening histories to pathology laboratories until March 2018 at the earliest, with laboratory staff concerned about the'serious implications for patient safety'." Telstra, which signed the AU$220 million contract in May 2016, declined to provide a comment. The telco had been contracted to develop and run the new Australian National Cancer Screening Register for the next five years, with the database to maintain patient records for cancer testing across the country.
The Australian Department of Health has notified a joint committee that the National Cancer Screening Register for bowel cancer, being delivered by Telstra, will not be operational until late calendar 2019. Speaking before a public hearing of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit on Wednesday morning, Department of Health National Cancer Screening Taskforce First Assistant Secretary Bettina Konti said the department and Telstra are continuing to focus on delivering the cervical cancer screening register. "All our focus is on ensuring that we can complete the National Cancer Screening Register to support cervical screening, and for that reason we and Telstra Health have moved our resources into that in order to ensure that occurs. Once that is implemented and stable, the planning will recommence for bowel cancer transition," Konti told the committee. However, while late 2019 is the goal, Konti admitted that "there isn't a target date" for the bowel cancer screening register, because the inefficient paper-based register can continue being used until then.
A joint audit committee has suggested that delays in delivering cervical and bowel cancer screening registers by Telstra Health could result in a termination of the AU$220 million contract, or with penalties to be paid by the provider. In Report 472: Commonwealth Procurement -- Second Report Inquiry based on Auditor-General's reports 9 and 12 (2017-18) and 61 (2016-17) [PDF], published on Thursday, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit made several recommendations to the Department of Health. These included reporting to the committee on whether due to the "serious underperformance by Telstra Health" the Commonwealth should terminate the contract and "pursue other options for either or both registers", which were meant to be delivered by May 1, 2017, and March 20, 2017. "If Health is of the view that this is not the best course of action, then the committee requests advice as to penalties the Commonwealth could consider seeking from Telstra Health, given the significant extra costs incurred as a result of this delay, and what advice Health has sought regarding these issues," it added. The committee also recommended that the Department of Health provide six-monthly progress reports until both cancer screening registers are operational or the contract has been terminated.
It might take longer than some people would like for Telstra Health to become a profitable arm of the company, but chair John Mullen has said that Telstra is confident that it will be. "Telstra Health hasn't hit everything we expected it to do, but it's a startup business ... in a new area, we're bound to make some mistakes, we have made some mistakes, but we have also made a lot of successes," Mullen told the company AGM on Tuesday. The chair said the telco's health business has had success "under the covers", and handles 260 million prescriptions annually, has 22,000 GPs and 35,000 pharmacists on its systems, as well as 10 public hospitals using its patient flow and queue management software. "We are the largest health software technology provider already, employing about 800 health professionals, and we are embarked on some very major projects like the National Cancer Screening Registry," he said.
The federal opposition has admitted that the computer systems behind Australian health need to be modernised, with Labor leader Bill Shorten saying this should occur "at some point", not dismissing the idea of private sector engagement. Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said she would not rule out involving the private sector in the inevitable IT improvements, which would need to happen within five years. "But under no circumstances would you flog it off," she told ABC radio on Monday. The acknowledgement of the health IT concerns comes in the wake of Shorten accusing the current government of planning to privatise Medicare. Early on in Shorten's election campaign, the Labor leader declared the July 2 poll was a referendum on protecting the Medicare system.