Lawmakers push for transparency surrounding health task force - WSMV News 4

Lawmakers push for transparency surrounding health task force

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The chairman of a newly formed task force is denying that members are conducting business behind closed doors.

The Channel 4 I-Team obtained a letter from two public officials stating the need for transparency regarding the Three-Star Healthy Task Force, a group tasked with finding ways to increase access to health care.

State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, and state Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, who are both members, wrote a letter to Chairman Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, to voice their concerns last week.

“In the spirit of transparency and accountability, we have real concerns about using personal cell phone devices to transmit information back and forth on the Health Task Force,” the members wrote.

“Going forward, it is vital that we have documentation of our communication and procedures through the legislative email system.”

Briggs and Kane wrote that coordination ranging from scheduling to policy issues should be addressed over state legislative email.

In the letter, they also expressed concern over how meetings were scheduled, claiming that meeting times have been changed “at the last hour” on several occasions.

Chairman Sexton said members only used personal cell phone devices to discuss scheduling matters.

“I would say we have been more transparent and open than any task force that’s ever been created in the history of Tennessee,” Sexton said.

He added the task force routinely notifies the public and media of upcoming meetings, which anyone can attend.

While Briggs and Kane argued the task force needs to be in compliance with the Open Records and Freedom of Information acts, it’s unclear if the body is subject to such laws.

A ruling in Davidson County Chancery Court in 2004 insinuated the General Assembly was not a public agency subject to the Open Records Act.

But many still interpret the ruling as broad – allowing the law to remain fuzzy.

It is the practice of the Office of Legislative Administration to “strive in good faith to be responsive to all requests,” even if the legislative branch may not be considered a governmental agency, wrote director Connie Ridley in an email to the I-Team earlier this year.

Ridley was responding to questions about whether members of the General Assembly are subject to the Open Records Act.

But Sexton told the I-Team the task force is not a body with statutory authority, meaning it cannot pass laws or even make decisions. Still, he stressed the task force has gone above and beyond to be transparent with its progress.

“I don’t think there’s been one single thing that’s been discussed that hasn’t been made public or given to the media as a whole,” Sexton said.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, formed the task force in April, with the goal to make the current TennCare program more efficient and to increase access to care.

Harwell and Gov. Bill Haslam announced the formation of the task force after Insure Tennessee failed to gain momentum in the state legislature.

In a phone interview, Briggs said he and Rep. Kane feel strongly about open government issues, which is why they contacted Sexton.

“We’re about to get into some serious areas of the Three-Star Health plan,” Briggs said. “I wanted to put everything out in the clear.”

Their letter made a reference to “Black Wednesday,” an event in 2007 when Knox County politicians struck backroom deals over appointments to the county commission.

“We realize the Tennessee Legislature is not bound by Sunshine rules, but in some cases like this, we should be,” Briggs and Kane wrote.

The I-Team reached out to Rep. Kane and several members of the task force who were copied on the letter. They did not respond by deadline.

Kara Owen, a spokeswoman for Speaker Harwell, referred specific questions to Chairman Sexton.

“Chairman Sexton has been keeping her informed on the details of the plan that is taking shape, and she is looking forward to the conclusion of their work,” Owen wrote in an e-mail.

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