September 30, 2010
County tight-lipped about CHHA talks
Officials refuses to name agencies interested in taking over home health agency
As Cortland County reviews proposals from four agencies interested in taking over the county’s Certified Home Health Agency, the county is refusing to release any details about the negotiations or name the four organizations.
On Tuesday, County Attorney Ed Purser denied a request the Cortland Standard made last week under the state Freedom of Information Law, which asked the county to identify the agencies interested in taking over the CHHA program.
Purser’s written response stated only that it “would be premature to grant such a request at this time.”
The county is considering selling the program, which assists 89 clients countywide and has faced state aid cuts in recent years. It is expected to cost the county $102,000 next year because of the loss of approximately $60,000 in state aid.
In August the county submitted requests for proposals and four agencies have responded. Officials have been tight-lipped about the proceedings ever since, closing meetings to the public to protect imminent contract awards.
In a phone conversation, Purser said that disclosure “may cause problems in negotiations if they are to be done.”
But Bob Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said he thinks the information should be made public. Freeman, the state’s expert on freedom of information issues, thinks the identity of the agencies that are seeking to take over the program is not sensitive information that would be protected by the law.
Freeman said the government can withhold the information if disclosure would impair present or imminent contract awards and if the information would interfere with the government’s ability to make the best deal.
The government must prove how disclosing the names of the agencies would do that, says Freeman. Another exclusion, that exists to protect a company’s “trade secrets” would also not apply, said Freeman.
The government has the obligation to disclose and it bears the burden of proof to demonstrate why it should not disclose, he said.
County Administrator Martin Murphy said the county will disclose the information within a week, once the list of potential buyers has been narrowed.
“We’re checking into some things that have been reported and asked for additional information,” he said.
Murphy could not explain why revealing the identity of the agencies would threaten negotiations, saying rather that the county is protecting itself.
“If we don’t release the information, we won’t have to second guess ourselves. At this point we don’t see it as doing any good to release that information,” Murphy said.
But the purpose of the law, according to the Committee on Open Government’s website, is to ensure “... that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government ...”
One local health care provider stated Wednesday it is not interested in taking over the county program: St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, which now provides home health services to 22 patients in Cortland County.
“We are working on amping up recruitment efforts to staff that area so we can continue to serve more patients. Financially it did not make sense to take over another agency at this time,” said Abbie Parkhurst, St. Joseph’s Home Health Agency spokesman.
Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil) who sits on the subcommittee reviewing the proposals, said she thinks the public should know more details but will honor Purser’s decision of how to proceed. Price said the committee is examining the proposals individually and then will convene next week to discuss them collectively.
“What I’m going to be looking at is making sure the people of Cortland County are served as well or better if that is the route we choose to go,” Price said, of selling the agency.
Price added that the county could decide to maintain the program.
The county’s Certified Home Health Agency has suffered from fewer patients as a result of competing home health care provided by St. Joseph’s, which became a certified home health agency in January 2009.
St. Joseph’s was approved to offer the service after the county’s program faced problems being short-staffed in 2003 and 2006, forcing it to seek help with referrals.
One concern with selling the agency is that if another organization takes over the services, it might only be interested in servicing those who live along the Interstate 81 corridor.
Officials have said they want to ensure these clients will still be serviced if the agency is bought.
The subcommittee reviewing the proposals will meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
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