The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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May 10, 2013

Health exchanges must be transparent

Just as consumers and taxpayers gear up for the launch of health care reform where hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on exchanges, one state doesn’t seem too concerned about transparency.

The Covered California health care exchange officials recently approved a system where contracts and contractors involved in buying and selling services to the exchange will be able to keep information on their contracts secret for up to a year after they are completed. They will be able to keep amounts paid secret indefinitely.

This does not sound like the free marketplace where the invisible hand sets prices with widely accessible information envisioned by the signature Obama health care law.

Already, some open government groups in California are pushing for changing the law and say it may be unconstitutional.

Defenders of the secrecy say typical government bids for contracts remain closed so no one bidder has an advantage of seeing the other’s bid. That’s by and large true, but in most cases those bids become public after they have been awarded. That is as it should be in Minnesota and many other states.

The California secrecy is ill-advised at best and bad government at worst.

Health care exchanges will play a huge role in the affordability and accessibility of health insurance and health care in this country. The very idea of health care exchanges where buyers can compare competing plans and sellers can compete for consumer business require information and lots of it.

A private shield for private and public contractors alike is a recipe for disaster. Credibility of the exchanges will suffer along with consumer confidence.

The health care reform law has already become one of the most controversial laws in this century. It is terribly complex and will already be a challenge for consumers to understand. Creating a veil of secrecy around it will only exacerbate those the problems.

While California is often known for leading the way on public policy, the state’s leaders on the health care exchanges have really blown this one. The secrecy and privacy provisions should be turned back as soon as possible.

Many other states have subject new exchanges to open records and public data laws. That is the best course for making sure the exchanges work and officials who run them are held accountable.

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