Bryant Furlow/New Mexico In Depth
The N.M. Health Insurance Exchange Board has voted to open most – but not necessarily all – of its committee meetings to the public.
The move came after New Mexico In Depth staffers called for more transparency by the quasi-governmental nonprofit corporation in two commentaries (here and here). While the Open Meetings Act requires that full Exchange Board meetings be open to the public, smaller working committees have been meeting behind closed doors, sometimes with industry representatives.
The new policy, which the board approved Friday, stops short of subjecting committees to the Open Meetings Act by allowing committee chairs to close meetings at their discretion.
Board Vice Chair Jason Sandel said that was a mistake. He cast the only vote against the new policy, saying that while he “commended” his colleagues’ vote, the board should have gone further.
“I think we should be subject to the Open Meetings Act,” Sandel explained. “We can come up with all kinds of excuses, but other, similar bodies operate in a more open manner.”
Aaron Ezekiel, who represented state Superintendent of Insurance John Franchini at the meeting, called on committee chairs to offer public explanations should any of them opt to close a committee meeting to the public.
The board voted to publicly announce committee meetings on the Exchange website when “practical.” That caveat will allow flexibility when last-minute meetings are needed, board members said.
Despite voting to approve the policy, several board members said public meetings would inhibit frank discussions and might slow the Exchange’s work. Some worried that reporters would misconstrue or divulge too much of what is said at committee meetings.
Board member Ben Slocum proposed that the board go behind closed doors on Friday to discuss its open meetings policy, while acknowledging the seeming irony of that proposal.
But Exchange attorney Justin Miller was quick to note that doing so would violate the Open Meetings Act.
The Exchange is tasked with getting a virtual health insurance marketplace online by Oct. 1. It’s a system that could help more than 200,000 currently uninsured New Mexicans find health insurance.
“We’re building a billion-dollar corporation here,” Slocum said before the vote. “If we tie it up with public meetings, (making) the Oct. 1 deadline probably won’t happen.”
Marketing committee chair Dr. Martin Hickey described the Open Meetings Act as “cumbersome,” citing the law’s requirement that public meetings be announced 72 hours before they are held.
But the Act also allows for public announcements only 24 hours before emergency meetings, Sandel pointed out.
The Exchange has not responded to repeated requests by New Mexico In Depth for the names of industry representatives who attended closed committee meetings in recent weeks.
Bryant Furlow and NMID Deputy Director Heath Haussamen, who authored the two commentaries calling for more Exchange transparency, both serve on the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists’ N.M. chapter.