The Hamilton Spectator
Saturday, February 21, 1998

Privacy law to pave way for 'smart card'

by Richard Brennan

TORONTO -- The Harris government plans to pass a health information privacy law this spring that will pave the way for a "smart card" containing detailed personal health history and eventually all personal information kept by the government.

The Personal Health Information Protection Act, which is now being developed, "needs to be in place before we to anything because we have to make sure that information is protected", Health Minister Elizabeth Witmer said.

"We hope to have that passed by this spring", she added. "That will allow the smart system to move forward."

A smart card would, among other things, give a doctor access to a patient's health records and allow the government to track medical services received by the individual. Another of the touted benefits is that it would reduce paperwork and bureaucratic annoyances for Ontarians in their dealings with the health care system or government departments.

The privacy legislation that must precede the development of smart cards is the kind of law Justice Horace Krever called for 20 years ago when he headed an inquiry into the confidentiality of health records, said Tory MPP Tim Hudak, parliamentary assistant to Witmer.

"It is a necessary component for a smart card in that it sets up the proper rules and safeguards", said Hudak, who has been holding consultation meetings with interested parties, including companies that offer this technology.

But long before people will see a smart card in Ontario, there will have to be a "smart system" in place that is able to access all personal information now kept by a number of ministries.

The system of shared information will assist the government in fighting health care fraud and make it easier to track where money is being spent, particularly health care dollars, said Chris Hodgson, Management Board Chair.

"Nobody wants to talk about this, but we would like to get a system that can identify people who, let's say, have had two (medical) procedures in the same week, or if people are using the (health care) system who aren't entitled to it", Hodgson said.

He is putting together a request for companies to submit tenders to link the information systems of the province's ministries, which will probably take five years. But Hodgson said nothing is going to happen until the "very real" privacy concerns are dealt with.

"It has to be something the public can accept ... and the privacy commissioner can agree with", said Hodgson, who is to make a proposal to cabinet's planning and priorities committee on whether there should be one smart card per individual, whether it should have a computer chip and, if so, how much information should be on the chip.

Manitoba has embraced the smart card technology for its health system and Nova Scotia is looking at it.

Premier Mike Harris is not happy about the time it has taken to get this system off the ground and has told his political colleagues he wouldn't tolerate any more delays. Harris wants to see a personalized annual health statement issued to every Ontarian so they will know how much their health care costs in one year.

Harris' government has been talking about bringing in "smart cards" for more than two years.

The slow progress results partly from privacy concerns and the inability of government ministries to share information. Government departments can't even e-mail each other without going on the Internet, which poses all kinds of security risks.

Government politicians are privately blaming bureaucrats for "dragging their feet" because a couple hundred civil servants might find themselves out of jobs if inter-ministerial information is consolidated.

Witmer said part of the delay results from "extensive consultation".

Copyright © 1998 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.