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N.W.T. Health Information Act too complicated, should be simplified, says privacy commissioner

Elaine Keenan Bengts wants the health department to change the act to create 'more down to earth, simple legislation.'

Elaine Keenan Bengts wants the health department to change act so it's 'down to earth, simple legislation'

Elaine Keenan Bengts says the government doesn’t have the technology to properly protect people’s health information, as outlined in the act. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

The privacy commissioner is calling on the N.W.T. government to fix its Health Information Act because she says it's too dense and hard to understand.

Elaine Keenan Bengts, the information and privacy commissioner for the N.W.T. and Nunavut, met with MLAs on Thursday to tell them what she thought of the territory's efforts to safeguard residents' privacy.

Much of the meeting focused on the Health Information Act — a document released in 2015 that outlines residents' rights when it comes to their health records. The act is meant to govern how personal health information is collected and disclosed.

Keenan Bengts said the government doesn't have the technology to properly protect people's health information, as outlined in the act.

The act says residents should be in control of who can have access to their health records, but Keenan Bengts said the systems aren't in place for that to happen.

She said people should be able to block someone, such as an ex-partner working in health care, from accessing their health information.

"Our system currently as it now stands doesn't have the ability to do the masking that the act says must be available to the public," said Keenan Bengts.

Damien Healy, the manager of communications with the Department of Health and Social Services, said in an email that the department is working to improve this.

"The functionality of electronic systems currently limits the ability for residents to control access to their personal health information and [the department] is working to improve this."

Too complicated

This isn't the first time the privacy commissioner has chastised the department over the Health Information Act.

In the six months after the act became law, the commissioner said there were seven separate privacy complaints. Keenan Bengts said health-care staff needed additional training, and the public needed to be educated about their rights around personal health information.

This week, Keenan Bengts also pointed to the act's section on the consent of using or disclosing patients' personal health information. The section is about five pages long and references multiple other sections of the document, making it complicated, she said.

In 2017 there was a privacy breach at a Hay River health clinic. As a result, the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority commenced a review of patient files. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Keenan Bengts said she would like to see the department simplify the act so it's "more down to earth, simple legislation."

"There needs to be more education done so that people know what their rights are and how to exercise those rights," she said.

Healy, with the health department, said the complexity of the document is similar to that of New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador's.

He said the department has "no plans to change this legislation at this time."

More complaints and requests

Keenan Bengts is currently the only employee looking into the reviews and complaints, and she told MLAs that she's struggling to keep up with the workload at her office.

"I probably haven't done a review [or] report on time in the last year."

She said that's because the number of complaints and access to information requests have increased by 40 per cent in the last year.

She said privacy is more important to people today than it was 20 years ago, and the public is demanding that the government be more transparent and accountable.

Keenan Bengts said files are also becoming more complicated: she will sometimes have to look over thousands of pages of information for one request.

There are funds for the Information and Privacy office to hire another employee in the 2018-2019 territorial budget, though the exact position has not been named yet.

The budget will be debated over the coming weeks.

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