The Department is aware that the withdrawal of Defence and Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) Human Research Ethics Committee approval on Monday, 5 February 2024 has increased concerns in the veteran community regarding the Veterans’ MATES Program (MATES), particularly in relation to the sharing of data. MATES has sought to support veterans and their families to manage their health and aligns strongly with DVA’s objective to proactively support the health and wellbeing of veterans.
It is important to note that there has not been any unauthorised access of veteran data. The data has not been made available publicly or for nefarious purposes. DVA only ever provided client data for the purposes of MATES to a trusted organisation, the University of South Australia (UniSA) under strict data security and access policies.
DVA provided the data to UniSA in accordance with the ethics approvals in place at the time. This was done via a secure and carefully controlled channel. UniSA stored the data in a secure facility. Billing data was automatically de-identified before being accessed by researchers for the thematic review under the MATES program. The data did not include doctor’s notes. Identifying data was only used to communicate with the veteran themselves, as well as their doctor, in the event that the analysis of the de-identified data revealed risks to the veteran’s health. The letters that went to veterans and their doctors provided invaluable insights that supported those veterans receiving the most appropriate treatment possible.
Following an Office of the Australian Information Commissioner decision in April 2023, an external review was conducted concerning the administration of opt-out procedures in the MATES program. The review concluded all other such requests received by DVA to opt out of MATES had been properly implemented.
DVA takes its obligations under the Privacy Act extremely seriously and in August 2023 paused any provision of data to UniSA to enable a thorough examination of the existing arrangements. Since this time, no data transfers have occurred.
On 9 February, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs asked the Department to close down the MATES program and examine options for possible future programs that provide health benefits to the veteran community while meeting community and stakeholder expectations around ethical and data use requirements. Any future program would be subject to a new Ethics Committee approval.