Sunday, May 11, 2014

Will Legislature keep HMO data secret, even while industry is under federal investigation?

This session, the Minnesota Legislature has been debating bills brought forward by the Minnesota Newspaper Association to fix the Supreme Court's / Timberjay decision.  The bills (SF 1770/HF 2167) would make sure that all private companies that contract to perform outsourced government work would be subject to Minnesota's open records/privacy law, the Data Practices Act.

No one objected to the bill until the Minnesota Council of Health Plans came forward, and said the world would end unless they were exempted from the Data Practices Act.  But the proposal has become entangled with a behind the scenes/closed door discussion in secrecy from the offices of the Minnesota Department of Human Services to the leadership of the Legislature.  Last week the Minnesota Senate voted unanimously to give the the Health plans what they demanded.

Here is a question for our lawmakers:  Why would you provide total exemption from our open records law to an industry that is currently under investigation for the misuse of billions of taxpayers dollars?

That's essentially what happened on Friday, when the Senate added an amendment to SF 1770 that gave a blanket exemption to the entire HMO industry, for one year.  HMOs contract with the State to provide public program health care services.  For at least a year or more, the federal government has been investigating these programs, and the role the HMOs play in handing them, due to many charges of mismanagement.  That is reason enough make sure that the public can really see what is going on inside the HMOs, and how they spend taxpayer funds.

I know that the Newspaper Association wanted the bill to correct the Timberjay case. But at what price? What makes these HMOs so special?  If the point of HF 2167/SF 1770 is to make sure that there is public oversight of outsourced spending, why exempt an industry that gets a huge share (hundreds of millions) of that spending?

Some will say that it's only a one year exemption and that there is going to be a study. Our use of HMOs for the management of public programs was only supposed to be a short "demonstration project" and there was going to be a study. The demonstration project has been going on for more nearly 25 years and a 1993 study was shelved after opposition from the HMOs (as the Star Tribune reported at the time on March 13, 1994/Human Services HMO study-shelved).  Once it's written into law, will the blanket HMO exemption also be rolled forward forever?

Now that the HMOs have succeeded in insulating themselves from public review in the Senate, it appears the House will follow suit on Monday with  amendments offered to placate their demands.  It seems strange that after an April 25th hearing of Joint House Committees{ HHS-Finance/Policy/Civil) that Minnesota House members felt there was no justification for a blanket exemption and now it seems they changed their minds.  What happened?   Will House members stand up to demand real transparency and accountability or will they sell out?

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