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Maryland health exchange faces disclosure scrutiny

Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein can add another educational accomplishment to his resume — a certificate of completion from the University of Maryland and the state attorney general's office for an online course on Maryland's Open Meetings Act.

Sharfstein, a pediatrician who has a degree from Harvard Medical School, among others, volunteered for the extra schooling after the state's health exchange lawyers said someone on each public board is required by law to take the online course. Sharfstein is the exchange board chairman.

One other board member, Jennifer Goldberg of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, also took the course.

The timing of the 21/2-hour course may have been fortuitous. Sharfstein's certificate is dated March 4, and seven days later a journalist from the Kent County News filed a complaint with the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, an oversight panel housed in the attorney general's office.

Other news outlets have complained informally to exchange and state officials about access to information about the exchange website, which has been so troubled that the board cut ties with its prime contractor and dumped its software in favor of technology used by the Connecticut exchange. The Maryland exchange's executive director also resigned.

In a letter to the open meetings board, Sharfstein and L. Kristine Hoffman, a deputy state attorney general who is the exchange's lawyer, denied the allegations from the News' Craig O'Donnell. The board is expected to issue an opinion by the end of the month.

Sharfstein said in an interview that the exchange has re-evaluated its operations since the complaint and taken steps to make information more available. It has, for example, filled some document gaps and added a tab to make meeting minutes easier to find online — one part of the complaint related to missing minutes.

"We've taken a look again at all the compliance issues and best practices," he said. "We've gone all the way back to the beginning of the exchange and posted materials."

O'Donnell's complaint also alleges that the board held improper emergency meetings and failed to disclose why some meetings were closed to the public.

Exchange officials said meetings were closed so officials could get legal advice and discuss contracts, both legally allowed. Other meetings were held with little or no public notice, but Sharfstein said they were to accept the last-minute resignation of the executive director and to replace the prime contractor, and that the press was notified shortly after.

In a separate issue that won't be addressed by the open meetings board, many public information requests remain unfilled. Sharfstein acknowledged the backlog and said lawyers will eventually address them, though not in the 30 days required by law — a law not covered in his online course.

meredith.cohn@baltimoresun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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