Using state public records laws to cover health exchanges

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Health News Colorado

In Colorado, the exchange has delayed answers on public records requests but officials never claimed that they were not subject to the Colorado Open Records Act. That was true even though our legislature created the exchange as its own entity outside of state government — a public nonprofit called Connect for Health Colorado. In states where the exchange is part of state government, they must comply with open records laws, which can produce faster results than FOIA.

KatieMcCrimmon

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

The trick is to make relatively narrow requests so they aren’t delayed or denied. If the request is just right in Colorado, officials must supply the information within three business days. This fall, I learned that our exchange managers were trying to get raises and bonuses behind closed doors in executive session – even after our exchange had a poor launch and enrollments were lagging below projections. I put in a request for executive salaries and had the information within three days. I did a story and members of Congress were furious. Needless to say, those requests for bonuses and raises were shelved – at least for now.

Here are some ideas for requests that could be helpful in learning about what has occurred in the exchanges over the last few months. Here’s a preliminary list for information that would be helpful:

  • Technology problems. Ask for emails. These are subject to public records requests. Getting email chains from pre-and-post Oct. 1 launch can be very revealing. You might find evidence of panic and finger-pointing behind the scenes.

  • Costs and contracts. How much money are all these exchanges spending? I’ve obtained contracts for the information technology contractor CGI and other contractors here. We also learned that our exchange had hired outside public relations consultants and got tallies for how much they’ve been spending on the consultants. In addition, the troubled launch nationally and in states has forced some states to spend much more than planned on contingency efforts like beefed-up call centers and people who are processing paper applications. It would be amazing to know about additional expenses that have had to replace or supplement “Travelocity-style” systems. In Colorado, our phone center is jammed and exchange managers have had to hire outside contractors to call frustrated customers. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado even got stuck forever on hold and we reported on that. Here people are hunting for in-person help wherever they can find it because they find signing up online complex and overwhelming. It seems to be a fallacy that online sign-ups alone will suffice for consumers.

  • Executive salaries. These seem to be variable. It would be really great to have comparisons for all state exchanges. Have others requested raises during the launch period like ours did?

  • Travel records. In our state, the exchange folks haven’t been doing much travel, but in a state like California, you might get some interesting evidence of spending there.

  • Demographics. In addition for the age breakdowns (which some states and HHS are now giving) see if you can get geographical breakdowns for sign-ups. We got a great story here when we found out that health insurance rates in ski resort areas are far higher than other parts of the state. Enrollment specialists in high-cost areas like Vail, Aspen and Summit County can’t get many people to sign up and one of our members of Congress called for waivers for them. County-by-county sign-up data might yield some interesting trends elsewhere as well.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is the senior writer for Health News Colorado, an independent nonprofit that provides in-depth coverage of health care and health care policies in Colorado. This article originally appeared on the website of the Association of Health Care Journalists and was reprinted with the author’s permission.

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