A Threat to Public Records Access

October 6, 2005
   

3/01/2006 Update – The Ohio Department of Job & Family Services released data on Feb. 24, 2006, identifying the number of recipients, by employer, of Medicaid, food stamps and Ohio Works First cash assistance during 2004 and 2005. The data cover 40 employers most often named in the department’s data base. Policy Matters Ohio, which had sought such data, has done an initial analysis of it. Click here to read the March 1 release.

10/20/2005 – ODJFS to Produce Employer data. Click Here for Update

A Threat to Public Records Access

10/06/2005 – In a danger sign for the public’s right to know, the State of Ohio has taken an extraordinarily broad view of the recent Ohio Supreme Court decision denying The Columbus Dispatch access to home addresses of state employees. Last month, within two days of the decision, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) used it to turn down a request for data, by employer, on the number of employees receiving benefits administered by ODJFS.

Policy Matters Ohio requested the data and its e-mail exchange with ODJFS is appended below. The use of this case to keep Ohioans from learning about an important public policy issue is a menacing contraction of public access.

Public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, child care, energy assistance and others provide a crucial safety net for Ohioans. Policy Matters Ohio sought to obtain information first on Medicaid. As health-care costs have grown, employers nationally have been reducing their health-insurance coverage, forcing many employees to turn to government health coverage.

There is little doubt that this is a matter of concern for public policy makers. Disclosure of some sort by employer has been provided in at least 18 states, usually in response to media or other inquiries. In three states – Illinois, Massachusetts and Hawaii – laws have been passed requiring state reports by employer on how many employees or dependents are enrolled in Medicaid. Such legislation has been introduced in at least two dozen states, including Ohio (see National Council of State Legislatures).

In deciding against the Dispatch, the Ohio Supreme Court made it clear that it did not intend to open up a large, general loophole in the public records law (Ohio Revised Code 143.43). “We stress that our decision is narrow and focuses solely on the status of the addresses as “records.” We are not signaling a retreat from our statements in previous cases that courts in Ohio must construe R.C. 143.43 liberally in favor of broad access and disclosure of public records,” the court held. “Today’s holding has no application beyond the specific confines of the issue in this case. We will reject as unpersuasive the arguments of governmental bodies in future cases attempting to place great weight on this case as precedent in unrelated contexts.”

Policy Matters Ohio sought information about employers whose workforce relies on public benefits in order to shed light on public expenditures and policy solutions, as the public records law intends. In no way is Policy Matters Ohio asking for information about the identity of any individuals.

ODJFS also cited other reasons for turning down the Policy Matters Ohio request. Specifically, it said that the employer data is “inextricably intertwined with confidential client data,” and that it would have to create a computer software program to separate the names of Medicaid recipients from those of their employers. With the growth of Medicaid costs, one would think the department would have written such a program on its own to better understand which companies and industries are relying on the state to the greatest degree. This would provide a basis for public policy solutions.

Click here for the e-mail exchange between Policy Matters Ohio and the legal department of the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services. Please contact Zach Schiller, research director, Policy Matters Ohio, if you have questions at (216) 931-9923.

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