By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama’s Open Records Act stinks.
It’s worthless. It’s mostly unhelpful. And for those entities that know how to use the loopholes and rules to their advantage, the law can actually be a deterrent to accessing open records.
The Alabama Medicaid agency is one of those entities.
In “fulfilling” a recent request I made for documents, the agency highlighted all of the holes in the law and took advantage of every ambiguity to essentially deny me access to public records.
And if I don’t get to see those documents, neither do you.
That’s how this whole media thing works. We’re sort of your representative, so maybe keep that in mind the next time you cheer a journalist being shut out by an elected official.
Anyway, let met provide a bit of background on this Medicaid ordeal.
Late last year, I started looking into Alabama’s Regional Care Organizations plan. You know, the thing that’s supposed to be better than expanding Medicaid. The thing that’s supposed to provide care to so many more people for so much less.
Turns out, Medicaid can’t get the thing off the ground because the providers have this crazy idea that they’ll become involved and two years later, the Alabama Legislature will vote to defund the whole thing, costing them millions.
The RCO program has already had two providers pull out, has been heavily criticized by health care company executives and has been delayed multiple times.
So, it’s going about like the rest of Alabama.
Along with the problems, there have also been plenty of rumors surrounding this RCO program – most of them coming in the form of legitimate questions about the providers. There were also various tips passed along about seemingly large contracts.
A couple of those tips have turned into decent stories about massive amounts of taxpayer money being spent to hire consultants and various other entities.
With that in mind, I wanted to know how much has been spent by Medicaid on this failing-to-launch RCO program. Because, why wouldn’t I?
So, I requested all contracts that Alabama Medicaid has signed for work related to the RCO program. I also requested specific contract information about two specific companies. And I asked for the correspondence concerning RCOs over the last year between Medicaid commissioner Stephanie Azar and Gov. Robert Bentley.
It was a complicated order that I filed on Nov. 1. And I knew it would take time to pull the information together.
And so, it wasn’t a complete surprise that it come rolling in some four and a half months later. Because under Alabama’s law, there’s no real penalty for delaying the production of a request, because there’s no specific deadline set in the law for producing records.
What was a bit of a surprise was the bill for these public documents – documents you and I paid someone through our taxes to produce: $455.
That’s right, $455.
Thankfully, there was a nice breakdown that explained these charges.
Staff hours: 22 hours at $20 per hour: $440
I honestly don’t know which one to be more angry about. That they’re paying $20 per hour for basic document searches. That it took just 22 hours to produce the documents but four and a half months to get them to me. Or that they want $15 for a CD.
The last time a CD sold for $15, the cover was a swimming baby trying to grab a dollar.
This is what’s wrong with Alabama’s Open Records Act.
There’s no penalty for taking four-plus months. And there’s no law against charging such an obscene amount that it basically discourages anyone – including most news sites, TV stations and newspapers – from obtaining public documents.
Even if Medicaid had flat denied to provide me the documents – as numerous other entities have done in the past – and APR had been forced to go to court, even if we win, the people of this state lose. Because at best, the punishment for that public entity that denied the Open Records Act request would be a paltry fine and paying attorneys’ fees, both of which would be paid for out of taxpayer money.
But hey, no big deal. It’s just the Governor, a large government agency notorious for its fraud and millions of dollars at play.
I’m sure it’s fine.