CHESTERTOWN — In a followup to its recent investigation, the Kent County News lodged a March 14 complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board.
Since its website crashed upon opening Oct. 1, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange board of directors has been trying to salvage the dysfunctional $261 million Maryland Health Connection health insurance system.
The complaint addresses completely closed sessions on Dec. 6, Feb. 23 and March 7. It also notifies the compliance board that, as of March 14, there have been no public minutes published for six of seven meetings so far held in 2014: Jan. 4, Jan. 27, Jan. 31, Feb. 14, Feb. 18, Feb. 23 and March 7.
The Dec. 6 meeting was a hastily-called Friday night teleconference. The next day, the MHBE announced Health Exchange Executive Director Rebecca Pearce had resigned.
The MHBE said in an email Feb. 28 it has no documents from that meeting, a clear violation of state law. Unlike every other meeting it has held, there is no public notice on its website.
Next, on Feb. 23, the board held a Sunday-night telephone meeting to terminate one contract and approve or extend several others.
In a news release the next day, the board said it voted to fire the lead contractor: “Last evening, at the recommendation of Secretary of the Department of Information Technology Isabel FitzGerald, the Board of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange voted to end the role of Noridian Healthcare Solutions as the prime IT contractor for the Exchange.”
At the same meeting, the MHBE board expanded a contract with Optum/QSSI, a company hired to fix the ailing online system.
In connection with the so-called emergency meeting on Feb. 23, the Kent County News alleges that the MHBE board hid deliberations on contract approvals, amendments and terminations behind closed doors.
For reasons that can’t be explained, the MHBE press office sent two different versions of the Feb. 23 meeting’s written closing statement. The law mandates a single, unedited and unmodified statement, completed immediately before a closed session occurs.
On March 7, there was another teleconference meeting. According to that meeting’s closing statement, one reason the public was barred from listening in was the need for legal advice.
The other was to “discuss the contents of a bid or proposal, if public discussion or disclosure would adversely impact [their ability] to participate in the competitive bidding or proposal process.”
The so-called procurement exception known as 10-508(a)14 does not apply to contract approval, amendment or termination.
Yet on March 7 the MHBE discussed “Contract Modification for Hosting” and got legal advice concerning ex-contractor Noridian.
While the insurance exchange certainly has legal troubles galore, that in itself is not sufficient to bar the media and the public from its meetings.
The compliance board has written that a meeting “must be open unless one of the specific reasons for closing it can legitimately be identified.”
In addition, “[T]hose who participate in a closed session are accountable for the decision to close,” and “a public body may not avoid an open meeting merely because a topic is controversial or potentially embarrassing.”