"The most important thing is to dispel the fears of the public with regards to the My Number Card," said Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on August 4. He was speaking in a press conference to showcase the importance of shifting to the My Number Card system.
Issues related to the My Number Card have cropped up repeatedly over the past few months.
What is the My Number Card? And what will it do? Why is it so hot in the public debate?
Below we unpack some of the issues, and what to expect in the near future.
What is the My Number Card?
Japan's My Number Card is a chip-based data card with a 12-digit number. It identifies the person named on the card with information normally recorded under a variety of government entities. Among the most talked about examples are the national health insurance system and the national pension system.
In the big picture, it is a key element of digitizing and centralizing personal information beyond local government boundaries.
What will it do?
At this time, the My Number Card can be used as identification in a variety of settings. For example, it makes it easier to file one's tax return online. It is also linked to the pension system and can include personal information such as bank accounts. The card can also be used at convenience stores to print residence documents.
Planned for the next stage is the merger of the My Number Card and the national health system. This is where much of the current controversy lies. Currently, the health card system is administered at the local level, and local digitization varies widely.
PM Kishida also said that he envisions the system being used more widely. For example, he expects it to connect various other government-issued identification, such as driver's licenses and foreign resident cards.
When would this happen?
According to Kishida's announcement on August 4, the My Number Card system would phase in by the fall of 2024. And the national health card system would phase out completely at the same time.
What is the rationale for merging healthcare into the national My Number Card system?
On August 4, the prime minister delved into a bit more detail about what is pushing his administration towards digitization. In turn, that means the adoption of the My Number Card system.
Kishida referred back to the COVID-19 pandemic period in Japan. The healthcare system was put under strain trying to keep track of new infections and when rolling out vaccines. At the time, he was head of the policy research council in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and says it was that period that enlightened him on the status of digitization in Japan.
"I was at the forefront of the COVID-19 policy decision-making, and I felt on my own skin that our country was digitally backward," said the prime minister in the p ress conference.
"During COVID-19, we saw a defeat in digitization in our country. [...] We must not repeat this digital defeat ever again," he emphasized.
Ultimately, he said, "The aim is to deliver the best possible healthcare to all our citizens."
How many people are registered in the new system now?
Implementation was slow in the beginning. However, it has been increasing thanks to the government incentives, such as cash handouts and logistical benefits. Kishida pointed out on August 4 that there are now nearly 90 million My Number Cards in use. That is an estimated adoption rate of 70 percent of the population.
But not all of those are ready to see more of their personal information merged into the new system.
One issue: is my information safe?
First established in 2016, registering for the My Number Card system was largely on a voluntary basis. Until recently.
Of the nearly 90 million cardholders, approximately 75% are currently linked with the health care system.
In practice, however, at the very least there have been hundreds of incidents that make the public uneasy. For most of these cases, data associated with the My Number Card didn't match that of the health card holder. In at least some cases, personal information was shared inadvertently.
Another issue: will the government get my information right?
There have also been logistical problems in connecting the data of individuals with their medical and personal files.
This has happened for various reasons. For one, transitioning from a locally managed system to a nationally organized one. Another problem was the inaccuracies in the data entry. This was particularly obvious with individuals who had the same characters in their name.
These are all issues that the government is aiming to resolve going forward.
Overcoming the inefficiency of a fragmented system
Yet another major issue the My Number Card system seeks to tackle is the dissonance between company and national health insurance cards. New national health cards are paper cards issued annually and good for only one year. This contrasts with employer-issued health care cards for company health benefits. Those are issued with no expiration date.
In essence, it's the difficulty of transitioning from a very fragmented system. Currently, health cards are processed between public and private insurance systems, which amounts to thousands of insurers. Under the new system, all information would be managed at a central level.
PM Kishida said the My Number Card system seeks to put these various systems together, for a validity of one to a maximum of five years.
Where does the public stand on this?
Due to the aforementioned logistical problems, especially the data accuracy and security issues, the public has been uneasy about merging the My Number Card with the healthcare system.
According to an FNN poll in July, over 70% of the population either thought that the move to a mandatory system should be delayed or canceled altogether.
What is the government doing to address the public's concerns?
PM Kishida established a Headquarters for the Overall Review of the My Number Information in June. This multi-agency group appears to be set to tackle the data accuracy and other issues that have affected public confidence in the system.
In his press conference, the prime minister explained that the relevant ministries implementing the My Number Card system are scheduled to meet for a progress report on August 8. On the agenda is addressing potential issues arising in the system's implementation.
As a priority, the government has pledged to review the way the data is registered and stored. Kishida said:
"The first step is a comprehensive review of individual data security. Together with local governments and insurers, we’ll conduct a comprehensive inspection of all categories of necessary individual data. In principle, that will completed be by this autumn."
"We will take appropriate measures, including a review of the timing of the abolition of the [existing health card] system, based on a comprehensive review," said the prime minister.
An interim system as a bridge
At the same time, Kishida announced there would be an interim document available to help facilitate the implementation of the new system.
Apparently this would be a sort of "certificate of eligibility" instead of the current health card for those not yet enrolled in the My Number Card system. The government intends to use this to make sure individuals not enrolled in the new system could still receive benefits.
Engaging the public in the process
Through press conferences such as the one on August 4, the prime minister has been appealing to the public for broader understanding. Kishida has also pointed to some success stories. For example, the city of Fukuoka, on the southernmost island of Kyushu. The city has an impressive My Number Card adoption rate of approximately 90%.
Explaining why he is committed to digitalization does not entirely address public concerns, however. We can expect more public engagement as the government pushes to encourage acceptance of the My Number Card. And clearly, more will need to be done to dispel public concerns over the privacy and accuracy of their data held in the system.
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Author: Arielle Busetto