Research Group Sees ‘Danger Sign’ for Public Records in State Agency’s Rejection of Employer Data

Gongwer News Service - October 7, 2005

Gongwer News Service

Researchers seeking data about businesses whose cuts in health insurance may force workers onto public assistance said Friday a state agency was taking “an extraordinarily broad view” of a court decision in withholding the information.

Policy Matters Ohio said the Department of Job and Family Services cited a recent Ohio Supreme Court opinion in turning down a request for information, by employer, about the number of employees receiving Medicaid benefits.

ODJFS told the non-profit research organization on Sept. 9 – two days after the court decision was published – that pursuant to the opinion, employer names and addresses were not public records subject to release.

Ramesh Thambuswamy, department senior staff attorney, also said the Policy Matters Ohio request was overly broad, and that the data sought was not available.

“The non-record data you are seeking is inextricably intertwined with confidential client data,” the attorney said in an e-mail to the group. “And in order to comply with your non-record data request, ODJFS would have to create a computer software program to either extract the non-confidential portion of each client file, or to give you access to just the data you are seeking, which ODJFS is not required by law to do.”

The Supreme Court last month rejected a newspaper’s attempt to force the government to release the home addresses of state employees. Justices said home addresses were not public records subject to disclosure. (Gongwer Ohio Report, September 7, 2005).

Policy Matters Ohio called the department policy “a danger sign” for the public’s right to know. ODJFS said Friday it also had turned down requests from The Columbus Dispatch and The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer for the same type of information.

“The use of this case to keep Ohioans from learning about an important public policy issue is a menacing contraction of public access,” said Zach Schiller, research director at Policy Matters Ohio.

He said employers nationally have been reducing health insurance coverage in response to rising costs. As a result, an undetermined number of employees may have turned to Medicaid, or sought assistance through food stamps, child-care and other government programs.

Mr. Schiller said at least 18 states have disclosed at least some employer-based information. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Hawaii have enacted laws requiring state reports by employer on the number of employees or dependents enrolled in Medicaid. Similar legislation, he said, has been introduced in 24 states, including Ohio.

Although the September court decision was cited in the ODJFS response to Mr. Schiller, the department said its policy on such requests dates to April.

“In the past few months there have been an increasing number of media reports about efforts in some states to identify the number of employees of large employers such as Wal-Mart who receive public benefits,” the agency said in the April statement on employer identification. “While ODJFS has received requests of this nature, no report exists that enables the agency to provide such data.”

The document explains how the agency collects and maintains employer information. “Consider that there are more than 230,000 employers in the state, many of which are likely to be entered into the system through various spellings, and it becomes clear that the suggestion that this information could be generated ‘at the mere click of a button’ is inaccurate,” ODJFS said.

When the Supreme Court ruled last month in Dispatch v. Johnson that state employee home addresses were not public records, Justice Alice Resnick stressed the decision was narrowly drawn. It did not, she said, signal a retreat from the court’s previous finding that the public records law should be construed in favor of broad disclosure.

“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 contests,” Justice Resnick said.

Less than 48 hours later, Mr. Schiller pointed out Friday, the case was cited in an ODJFS response rejecting his group’s request that sought names of employers, not employees.

“I don’t know what else they’re going to apply this ruling to,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like a good way to go about dealing with the public in this instance. I think it threatens public access in general.”

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