Guv’s closed health session appears legal under open meeting law exemption

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 1, 2016….The group convened by Gov. Charlie Baker last week to shape his administration’s policy on digital health care was created by executive order, its members selected by the governor, his office said, and appears not to be bound by the state’s open meeting law.

On Nov. 22, Baker’s office announced the creation of the Digital Healthcare Council, a group of Cabinet secretaries, insurance and health care industry executives, academics and others from the private sector tasked with helping to grow an industry that combines health care and information technology.

Baker created the council Nov. 17 when he signed executive order 574, his office said. The order, Baker’s 21st since taking office, calls for the council to “advise the Governor regarding the digital healthcare industry and to develop a growth plan to achieve the goal of creating the leading global ecosystem for the digital healthcare industry in Massachusetts.”

The group’s first task will be to present Baker with a three-year plan with “recommendations and objectives for ways the state can promote and accelerate digital healthcare innovation across the Commonwealth,” Baker’s office said in its announcement.

The council’s work could influence government policies in an area with potentially profound impacts on patient care and health care costs.

In a statement announcing the council, Baker said its work will “move past barriers in the healthcare industry and solve significant challenges to make advances in patient care, lower health care costs, and address public health crises, like the opioid epidemic.”

Baker participated in the first meeting of the council last week, though it was not included on the governor’s public schedule. Asked why the governor’s attendance at the meeting was left off his public schedule, Baker’s press office said the meeting was closed to the press, and therefore the public.

Asked by the News Service why the meeting was closed to the press and public, Baker’s press office responded three times last week by reiterating that the “meeting was closed to press.” Then on Wednesday, after another News Service inquiry, Baker press secretary Billy Pitman said, “The meeting was closed to press in the same way any group of folks advising the Governor on strategy would be.”

The governor has previously met privately with outside experts on topics like the opioid epidemic and criminal justice reform, and then held a press conference to discuss the meeting.

Indeed, such private meetings are common throughout the State House and state government, where legislative and executive branch officials often huddle in their offices with invited guests for talks that occur outside the formal structure of legislative hearings and public meetings and hearings. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg this session convened numerous working groups of senators who conducted policy work outside of the conventional process.

Following last week’s Digital Healthcare Council meeting, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash and Katie Stebbins, assistant secretary of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, held a media availability to discuss the creation of the council.

The executive order declares the council “empowered to hold public meetings, fact-finding hearings, and other public forums to solicit feedback from business leaders, researchers, healthcare providers, healthcare consumers, and other interested persons,” but does not require the group meet in public.

The state’s open meeting law exempts “bodies appointed by a constitutional officer solely for the purpose of advising a constitutional officer” from the requirements of publicly posting meeting notices, conducting business in the public eye and making records available upon request.

Asked whether future meetings of the council will be closed to the press and public, Pitman said the governor’s office does not have information on future meetings of the group.

Next week, Baker will travel to Israel on his first international trade mission since taking office in 2015. The governor will lead a delegation of state and private sector officials with plans to focus on cyber security and digital health innovation. Stebbins, who co-chairs the Digital Healthcare Council, will also participate in the trip.

“If we really want to dominate digital health, which I would love us to dominate as well, we’ve got to get the cyber security thing right,” Baker said Monday on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio. “Remember, when you start getting into digital health you’re talking about devices and mechanisms that are designed to keep people healthy, like glucose monitors and mechanical devices that are going to be digitized. And if they are digitized, they have to work and they would be horribly exposed if they weren’t secure.”

Copyright 2016 State House News Service