Transparency laws exist for a reason. People should have as much access as possible to the actions of the government that makes decisions that impact their lives.
In the case of New Mexico’s Health Insurance Exchange Board, those decisions will have a huge impact on people’s lives. The Exchange is intended to be a virtual marketplace that, through competition, will give an estimated 200,000 or more New Mexicans health insurance who don’t currently have it by making insurance more accessible and, hopefully, affordable.
Transparency is especially important when dealing with complex issues like those the Exchange seeks to address. Health insurance issues are difficult to understand even for reporters like our Bryant Furlow, who has been watchdogging the Exchange. I’ve spoken with many others who have a difficult time understanding what’s going on with the Exchange. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it.
That’s why the Exchange’s board must go out of its way to ensure the public has full access to its discussions and decisions as it sets up the Exchange.
Instead, the board has broken into committees – groups smaller than a quorum – whose meetings, they say, don’t have to be open to the public. Those committees have been discussing important issues related to the creation of the Exchange for months, and they’ve been doing it in secret, without telling the public they were meeting.
But that’s not the worst of it.
While the Exchange has failed to tell the public, including the media, about these meetings, it has made sure industry representatives were present for at least some meetings. The Exchange has ignored two requests from New Mexico In Depth for a list of industry representatives who attended the meetings.
There’s probably a practical reason for having industry representatives at the meetings. As I mentioned above, this is complex stuff, and those representatives know it better than most. The board probably needs their help and input to figure out how to set up the Exchange.
But the appearance created by the inclusion of yet-to-be-identified industry representatives, coupled with the exclusion of the public, threatens the integrity of the Exchange.
Some industry executives are undoubtedly donors to the politicians who appointed members of the Exchange board. How do we know pay-to-play, rather than the needs of the public, isn’t driving decisions the board is making?
Giving the public access to all you do
The Legislature and governor already exempted the Exchange board from conflict-of-interest laws. Now the Exchange board has found a way to avoid, or at least attempt to avoid, the transparency required by the state’s Open Meetings Act.
It’s definitely flirting with violations. Last week, all members of the Exchange board were invited to a committee meeting. A quorum didn’t show up, but there was an intent to have them all there. That would have been a certain violation of the Open Meetings Act.
The public must be told about and given access to any meeting at which public business is going to be discussed and a majority of board members will attend or are expected to attend, regardless of whether any action will be taken. That’s what state law requires.
The importance of the Exchange and the complexity of the issues it’s dealing with mean the board should go out of its way to be more transparent and accessible than state law requires. Instead, they’ve been meeting in secret with industry executives. Bad move.
It may be, as some of them say, that they’re simply not educated on complying with sunshine laws and are stretched thin. There’s some evidence that they want to be transparent. They let Furlow in to last week’s committee meeting after initially telling him he could not attend.
But the board would not need to worry about breaking the law if its members were erring on the side of transparency. The answer is simple: Make sure the public has access to everything you do. Open all meetings to the public. Announce them publicly in time for people to plan to attend. Webcast meetings. Archive the video. Put minutes of meetings online.
In other words, consider how you should conduct your business with the New Mexican who lacks health insurance in mind – someone who may want to be part of the process of setting up the Exchange and hopes it will help him or her get insurance – not from the perspective of the industry executive whose company hopes to profit from creation of the Exchange.
Sunshine isn’t just the best disinfectant – in a system in which conflicts of interest exist and campaign contributions carry weight, sunshine is the only disinfectant.
Heath Haussamen is a member of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.