The Montana Health Department sued after denying the request for public records

Disability Rights Montana filed a lawsuit against the state health department Wednesday after the agency denied a request for public records regarding the hiring of Mike Randol, director of Montana’s Medicaid and health programs.

Hired on May 31, 2022, Randol oversees three departments at the Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and is responsible for managing a combined annual budget of $2.7 billion, according to a press release from the law firm representing DRM.

According to the complaint, DRM’s leadership formally requested any documents related to Randol’s hiring, including job applications or nomination materials. The first request for documents was sent on July 13, 2022.

The request was denied twice by Public Information Officer Jon Ebelt. He first stated that the materials were confidential and protected by the Montana constitution.

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“This request for an individual employee’s application and documents is ‘a case where the demand for the privacy of the individual clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure,'” Ebelt wrote in an email to DRM earlier this year, quoting directly the state constitution.

DRM Executive Director Bernadette Franks-Ongoy argued that Randol’s position as director of Medicaid Services, serving more than 310,000 Montans, ranks him as a public figure.

“Mr. Randol has a limited, if any, privacy interest in information relevant to his ability to perform public duties,” Franks-Ongoy wrote to Ebelt in an Aug. 3 email. “Given his public trust, that outweighs it Right to information clearly such interests.”

The lawsuit challenges the intricacies of a Montanan’s constitutional right to know, a statute that ensures an individual’s right to examine documents or observe the deliberations of any public agency or agency of the state government.

The lawsuit alleges that DPHHS violated the public’s constitutional right to information by refusing to review documents in the agency’s possession about a public figure.

“The department did not do any analysis (of the application),” said Niki Zupanic of Upper Seven Law, the law firm representing DRM. “There are several factors that DPHHS should have considered … as one of the largest agencies, they should not have expected this information to be fully covered. That is not a reasonable expectation.”

Zupanic said the department should weigh Randol’s right to privacy against the vast amount of public money at stake, as well as the vulnerable populations who depend on Medicaid, including impoverished Montanans, the elderly, people with disabilities and many more.

“(Ebelt’s) response indicated that the department did not conduct the analysis,” Zupanic said, adding that the agency did not accurately balance Randol’s right to privacy against the public’s right to know.

Ebelt declined to comment on this article.

Concerns about Randol

After the announcement of his employment, very little information was released about the decision to hire Randol or his plans for the department.

His recent streak of overseeing the privatization of Medicaid services in other states is worrying for many, but it’s unclear if the current administration plans to move Montana toward managed care, Zupanic said.

As a federally mandated protection and advocacy program for Montanans with disabilities, DRM has a vested interest in the future of Medicaid operations and the qualifications of those who hold positions of high public trust, Zupanic said.

Not only are most of them served by DRM Medicaid users, the purpose of the non-profit organization is to monitor facilities and investigate issues of abuse or neglect. And when resources from an already tight federal budget divert to contracting out private companies to administer Medicaid benefits, it can negatively impact the quality of care and the accessibility of care for the state’s most vulnerable populations.

The lack of information about Randol worried Franks-Ongoy and led to the formal request for documents, according to Zupanic.

The tendency

Over the past two years, Zupanic’s desk has faced a series of lawsuits regarding the denial of requests for public records.

She has noted less transparency and greater secrecy at government agencies since Governor Greg Gianforte took office. And it has hampered the public’s ability to participate in government, according to Zupanic.

“This trend is reflected in this request denial,” Zupanic said. “It shouldn’t be that hard to get information the public is entitled to … the state has plenty of resources to say no, but this violates Montanans’ constitutional right to know.”