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Closed meeting
(The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Health exchange board approves $43.5M in contracts

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange board voted Friday evening — via conference call — to authorize two contracts with technology firms, totaling $43.5 million, to transition the state’s faulty health insurance exchange to a new system.

One of the agreements is a five-year, $29.3 million contract with Xerox Corp. Ltd. for web hosting. The other is a three-year, $14.2 million contract with Deloitte Consulting LLP (the company recently hired to set up a new website for Maryland’s exchange).

This contract authorizes Deloitte to purchase several software licenses on behalf of MHBE that the state needs to maintain the new website once it is up and running.

If the state was still using its previous system — which crashed from Day 1 when it launched in October — both the software licenses and web-hosting costs would be more expensive than they are for the new Deloitte system, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, MHBE board chair and secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Reporters were informed via email Friday morning that the board scheduled a meeting for 5:30 p.m. that evening, to be held via conference call.

The meeting was public for only for a few minutes — just long enough for the board to vote on a motion to go into closed session.

The reason given for closing the meeting was that the board needed to “protect the confidentiality of procurement and negotiating strategies” related to software and web-hosting contracts, Sharfstein said.

That type of discussion is one of the 14 exemptions to the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

When asked early Friday what the topic of discussion would be, spokeswoman Alison Walker offered no specifics.

“Details will be discussed at the start of the meeting,” Walker wrote in an email. “If I hear anything else, I’ll let you know. Expect the board to return to open session [after the closed session.]”

The board members returned to open session after about 45 minutes to announce that they’d be voting on the contracts.

The MHBE board, which makes decisions regarding the state’s new health insurance exchanges, has quite the history of closed-door meetings.

In March, a reporter from The Kent County News, Craig O’Donnell, alleged that MHBE violated the state’s Open Meetings Act numerous times over the past two years.

One of the most notable incidents regarded an “emergency meeting” held via conference call on a Sunday night in February. A notice was posted to the MHBE website on Saturday, which O’Donnell (and other members of the media) asserted was inadequate.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board agreed, according to an opinion issued this month on O’Donnell’s complaint. Here’s an excerpt from the opinion:

“Last-minute meetings require the public body to make extra effort to get the word out to the press, and ideally to the members of the public, who follow its activities. We find that it would have been feasible for MHBE to at least alert representatives of the media to monitor its website for a meeting notice. We also find that MHBE did not do so.

Only by happenstance would a reporter or other person interested in the Board’s meetings check the MHBE website on a Saturday evening to see whether the Board would be meeting that Sunday.”

The OMCB concluded that while the MHBE board did have a valid reason for closing that meeting and others, they repeatedly failed to properly inform the public of why doing so was necessary.

At an MHBE board meeting earlier this month, when Sharfstein went over the findings of the Open Meetings Compliance Board, he insisted MHBE “has a very strong record of transparency,” and said MHBE’s primary offense was a failure to properly explain the reasons for needing to close various meetings.