( – promoted by OKWatchdog)
The state Senate on Monday narrowly stopped a little-noticed push to close off access to public information. You’re probably familiar with the state employees birth dates mess, but other bills are aimed at reining in open government.
House Bill 1613, which passed the House but, refreshingly, failed in the Senate by a party-line 24-21 vote, makes a number of changes to confidentiality under the Insurance Code. The bill does some general housekeeping that, while seemingly unnecessary, also probably isn’t too harmful. Then it goes too far, shielding basic information not only from disclosure but from subpoena.
The bill could still be reconsidered in the Senate.
In its more innocuous sections, the bill expands documents used in financial and market examinations of insurers. The body of law surrounding open records typically exempts “work papers,” internal documentation and other things that lead up to the sorts of determinations mentioned in the bill.
What’s the need to explicitly ban it? If I’m wrong about this information being confidential in Oklahoma (it is in Texas, where I spent years pursuing this sort of information as a journalist), please let me know. I don’t mind being told I’m wrong.
The most troubling part of this bill seems to be an attempt to protect a corner of the insurance market that is particularly susceptible to abuse. Discount medical plans technically aren’t insurance, although they’re often deceivingly marketed as such. Because of this potential for flimflam, the Insurance Department requires them to register and regulates their marketing materials. Discount medical plans are basically an agreement with certain providers to offer discounts. You’re still responsible for all costs.
The discount medical plan language, however, is too broad. Even advertisements and solicitations are included. So a discount medical company can send run an ad that later proves fraudulent, which many people see, but those same people and the media can’t request copies of these materials because they’re “confidential.” It’s ridiculous. That’s like saying a press release is confidential after everyone has seen it. Solicitations and advertisements are meant to be seen by the public and are the primary means these companies recruit customers.
Imagine trying to sue a discount medical plan for deceiving you but being unable to subpoena the ad that led you to purchase the service. How could you build a case?
The bill’s Senate author, Cliff Aldridge, R-Midwest City, who works as an insurance agent, said in committee that the bill was intended to keep “anyone just walking in off the street and requesting it.” That’s a pretty lame excuse for closing the door to public information, especially considering that the insurance industry already can share much of this same information. I respect the need to keep trade secrets confidential, but c’mon. This threat is imaginary. The average Joe has never filed an open records request and never will. And the media rarely scrutinizes the insurance business.
Meanwhile, tons of information is available for commercial purposes. Remember those stories in The Oklahoman and Tulsa World about the state selling records that contain birth dates….
Aldridge said he didn’t intend to shield information needed in criminal proceedings. What about civil proceedings? Cases involving insurance shenanigans are typically tried in civil courts; criminal cases are rare by comparison.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are far more troubling bills coming out of the Legislature this year. But I’d be remiss if I weren’t concerned about the overall effect of incremental tightening of public access to the government’s data. A little bit here, a little bit there, pretty soon there are only crumbs.
In a March 23 editorial in The Edmond Sun newspaper, the bill’s House author, Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Oklahoma City, praised transparency, sunshine and a bill that creates the Government Website Information Act. While it’s a laudable bill, what the Legislature giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.