In response to a growing privacy backlash, the Federal Government has announced legislative changes to My Health Record to restrict access by law enforcement and government agencies, and allow records to be deleted by those who choose to withdraw from the system, with the opt out period also expected to be extended.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was forced to make the back down late yesterday following meetings with the RACGP and Australian Medical Association.

“This policy requires a court order to release any My Health Record information without consent. The amendment will ensure no record can be released to police or government agencies, for any purpose, without a court order,” Hunt said.

"The Digital Health Agency's policy is clear and categorical – no documents have been released in more than six years and no documents will be released without a court order.

"This will be enshrined in legislation. This change to the My Health Record Act will therefore remove any ambiguity on this matter."

The current legislation allows the disclosure of health information for law enforcement purposes and ‘protection of the public revenue’ without court orders.

The government will also amend the 2012 legislation to ensure the permanent cancellation of records, including people’s health details being deleted from My Health Record. Previously, data would remain in the system until 30 years after a person’s death, or when date of death was unknown for 130 years after the date of birth.

The 15 October deadline for Australians to opt-out of My Health Record is also expected to be extended by one month.

Hunt said the government has moved quickly to respond to community outrage and medical fraternity advice in implementing additional privacy and security protections.

[Read more: Queensland threatens to disrupt My Health Record roll out with call for COAG to suspend opt out | Opposition calls for My Health Record roll out to be suspended as AMA seeks greater privacy protections]

Federal Liberal backbencher Tim Wilson, who had previously said he had opted out, congratulated the government on Twitter for listening to concerns.

“Elated the Health Minister will fix Labor’s flawed MyHealth legislation. These changes address the principle concerns I had with MyHealth & should rebuild patient and health practitioner confidence by putting medical privacy at the fore of Australia’s MyHealth system. #Listening”

Deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek welcomed “anything that gives consumers confidence” in the online health information repository.

Dr Harry Nespolon, the RACGP’s president-elect, said the tightening of rules around access are required to encourage clinical use of the system.

“Changes to the legislation that remove any questions about who may be able to access the records ensure that the records will be able to be used in line with the RACGP’s position statement on My Health Records,” Nespolon told The Guardian.

“When a patient steps into the office of one of our GPs, we want them to know that their health information is private and protected.”

The news follows escalating political opposition to the My Health Record roll out.

Speaking yesterday at a media conference in the Tasmanian seat of Braddon, which Labor won in Saturday’s by-election, Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the government’s management of the My Health Record roll-out had grown as an issue of community concern during the campaign.

“It wasn’t the biggest issue in the election but it’s one which certainly as every day went on, more concern was expressed to me and our Labor candidates,” Shorten said.

“The government has got to protect the privacy of Australians. I support digitising health records, the principle of it, but this government is really bungling it.

“The government has got to respect the privacy concerns. It is very powerful information … people don’t want it accessed.”

Meanwhile, Queensland’s Health Minister Dr Steven Miles claimed ministers at this week’s Council of Australian Governments meeting should consider suspending the opt out period.

In a letter to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Friday, Miles claimed the disastrous communications campaign had generated “very serious concerns” about cybersecurity and data privacy, including fears of widespread access to patients’ private health records.

“You are no doubt also aware of the flood of news stories and opinion urging consumers to opt out for a wide range of reasons, including the system being vulnerable to hacking,” Miles wrote.

“At this point in time, it is clear that the Australian Government and ADHA are failing to adequately address the broader community concerns.”

COAG health ministers are meeting in Alice Springs tomorrow.

ADHA CEO Tim Kelsey will be speaking at the HIC18 digital health conference in Sydney at 3pm today.

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