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Health exchange struggles with Public Information Act

Officials with the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange are vowing to do a better job of responding to requests for documents after a review of a log tracking the requests revealed the agency has violated the law in more than three out of every 10 requests.

The agency, which has spent more than $100 million on a state health care exchange that faltered in its first year, is struggling to meet requirements for addressing requests under the Maryland Public Information Act. A review of records posted online found that more than 30 percent of outstanding requests for documents, excluding those requiring responses from the individual making the request, are beyond the 30-day deadline mandated by state law.

“While we attempt to respond on a timely basis, we have limited resources and do not want to compromise the integrity of our responses,” Alison Walker, a spokeswoman for the health exchange, wrote in an email response to questions. “MHBE has recently determined that it will seek extensions more frequently, particularly for more burdensome or complex requests.”

The Maryland Public Information Act requires that public entities provide documents within 30 days of a request. The law also builds in a 10-day window for the agency to acknowledge the request, if there are documents responsive to the request and whether those documents are likely to be withheld.

Walker made her comments after being asked about the log and the number of requests that exceeded the 30-day requirement in state law. She declined to respond directly to questions about whether the agency asked for additional time as allowed under the law. The agency did not ask for additional time to fill a document request made by The Daily Record and ultimately issued a denial 54 days after it was filed.

It is unclear how many of the requests marked as having been responded to were within the 30-day limit.

A review of a log posted online by the exchange shows that 17 requests are older than 30 days.

Of those, 12 are older than 60 days and seven were older than 99 days, exceeding a limit on extensions allowed by law. The extension is not mandatory and is only allowed if the individual requesting documents agrees to the onetime delay.

The majority of the requests come from reporters seeking access to emails, contracts and other public records related to the operation of the exchange.

Walker said the agency continues “to have a large number of (Public Information Act) requests, and we do our best to respond to them as quickly as we can.”

The health benefit exchange and the board that oversees it have been accused of flouting the state’s sunshine laws meant to provide public transparency.

In a May opinion, the state Open Meeting Compliance Board determined that the board violated a number of provisions of the Open Meetings Act in meetings held in December 2013 and February 2014.

A report by the Office of Legislative Audits noted in a 31-page report that a review of more than 14,500 pages of records covering the period between March 25, 2010, and Jan. 29, 2014, provided no meaningful insight into how important decisions were made or who made them. The review was limited to just documents requested by the news media and private citizens under the Maryland Public Information Act. The auditor noted that key points of information in the documents were redacted.

Currently, there is no remedy for forcing a government agency to respond to a request in a timely manner short of going to court. Time and expense typically prevent most individuals and news organizations from litigating.

A legislative task force is expected to take up the issue of creating a panel similar to the Open Meeting Compliance Board that could handle complaints regarding access to public records.

Sen. William C. Ferguson IV, D-Baltimore, said the group will begin its work later this year but could not provide a more definitive timeline. The report from the group is expected by January, prior to the next General Assembly session.