HARTFORD — The Freedom of Information Commission Wednesday issued Insurance Commissioner Katharine L. Wade a $500 fine after ruling that she improperly withheld documents last summer related to a proposed merger between Aetna and Humana.
The commission rarely imposes financial penalties, but members said they felt one was in order after agreeing with a hearing officer who said Wade “acted without reasonable grounds” in refusing to turn over the documents, even to commission staff.
A spokeswoman for the Insurance Department said in a statement that the ruling involves “conflicting statutory policies” on whether the documents in question are publicly available, and said Wade will appeal the decision.
“We have been advised by counsel that the nondisclosure statutes categorically protect the documents which are the subject of these FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests,” the spokeswoman, Donna Tommelleo, said in the statement. “These statutes prohibit the (Insurance Department) from complying with the FOI Commission’s directives, and we strongly believe that the courts will agree with us on appeal.”
The Connecticut Campaign for Consumer Choice filed a complaint with the commission last summer accusing Wade of improperly withholding documents related to the planned Aetna-Humana merger.
Wade produced 33 pages of documents after receiving the request from Connecticut Campaign for Consumer Choice. The campaign argued the documents were inadequate.
Wade and her attorney, Assistant Attorney General John Langmaid, argued that the remaining documents were exempt from disclosure because of Insurance Department regulations protecting sensitive information in insurer’s filings.
Wade did make some documents available for FOI Commission Attorney Lisa Siegel to review during a May hearing, but Langmaid told Siegel that they had withheld other documents citing this same exemption.
Langmaid argued Wednesday that because the exemptions fall outside the FOI Act, they are outside the commission’s purview and the matter should go to a Superior Court judge. He said the exemption is intended to protect sensitive information, and Wade should have the discretion to determine how the statute is applied.
“The decisions over whether those standards are met are Commissioner Wade’s, not this commission’s,” Langmaid said. “These are insurance statutes, not the Freedom of Information Act.”
Matthew Katz, executive director of the Connecticut State Medical Society, said the exemption only applies to specific forms from insurers. Langmaid’s interpretation was too broad in applying it to other documents, such as communications within the department, he said.
“The issue here is transparency, information, and public right to know, and right now we don’t have the public right to know,” Katz said. “We’re still waiting for documents.”
The society is part of the campaign that filed its request for documents in hopes of learning why Wade gave her approval for the Aetna-Humana deal, a decision she reached without a public hearing. A federal judge in January blocked the merger, and the two companies aborted their plan.
Langmaid pleaded with the commission Wednesday to first ask a judge to rule on whether the exemption within the insurance regulations pre-empt the body’s jurisdiction, but members said they had the authority to make the ruling.
The commission did reduce the civil penalty from Siegel’s suggested $1,000 fine, expressing concern about imposing the maximum penalty because the commission rarely imposes any financial penalties.
Confidential documents review by hearing officers remain shielded from the public unless the commission rules otherwise. Siegel said Wade’s contention that insurance regulations would bar any confidential sharing was “frivolous and unfounded.”