Digital wave is just beginning in B.C.

Protecting B.C.'s medical system and putting many routine government services online is the next step for driver's licences

B.C. driver's licences will soon be paired with a password to provide access to our famously 'free' health care system.

VICTORIA – Have you got one of the new B.C. driver’s licences yet?

By now most drivers have the one with the unsmiling black and white mug shot, to conform to passport standards so it could be used for border identification with the magnetic swipe strip on the back.

About one million of us now have the newest version, with a credit-card style digital chip that proves your residence and eligibility for our famously “free” medical care.

The motor vehicle office started issuing them about a year ago, as five-year licences expire. They replace the old “CareCard” that has no expiry date. Over the years there were more than nine million CareCards issued, twice the population of B.C., as people held onto their access to our defenseless, overworked medical system from wherever they moved to.

Positive identification is only the start for this card. Each will be assigned a password that gives access to online medical records, so when patients show up at an ER, their eligibility is confirmed and any previous conditions or medications are accurately matched. (Note that medical information is not stored on the card, just an access code that goes with the password.)

Patients will be able to call up their own files at home, book medical appointments and even renew prescriptions, which is where the efficiency comes in. In-person visits for routine prescription renewals are a cash cow for today’s doctors, generating guaranteed billings but often little or no health benefit.

Most people will still think of it as a driver’s licence, but it’s intended as an all-purpose government ID. If you don’t drive, you are spared the $75 licence renewal fee, and within a couple of years the cards will start providing online access to a wide range of government services.

Andrew Wilkinson, minister of technology, innovation and citizens’ services, says a public consultation has shown most people are comfortable using a system they already trust for their banking.

By the end of 2015, Wilkinson says about two million people will have the new cards, roughly half of B.C.’s population. Application forms converted to online access will include student loans, birth, death and marriage certificates, voter registration and even criminal record checks.

All this will be costly to set up, but the savings from having customers do their own data entry are well known, as any banker or supermarket owner can tell you.

“You can understand that if you’re in the vital statistics office and this can all be done from places like Telegraph Creek and Horsefly remotely, that actually saves them a lot of money,” Wilkinson said. “There will be conversion of existing services where you have to go into an office and wait around and fill out forms. Those will be converted to online services.”

It also means a decline in the number of government office jobs, and the potential for further outsourcing of services, as we have seen with Medical Services Plan administration and the back-office functions of BC Hydro.

Some older readers won’t be thrilled to hear about this. They don’t want a “smart phone,” just a phone. But they will also see their great-grandchildren becoming adept with tablet computers before they can even speak. Seniors will get the hang of it pretty quickly, and their lives will become easier.

• A correction to last week’s column on the Agricultural Land Commission. I erroneously said regional panel members were appointed from outside the region. They are local residents, and the new legislation formalizes a cabinet appointment process for them.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.

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