Health insurance premium increases invalidated under Open Meetings Act
An Alabama circuit judge has ruled that the state board governing education employees' health insurance violated the Open Meetings Act when it met in private before voting to jack up rates.
How far-reaching the ruling will be depends on whether it is appealed and upheld, said Dennis Bailey, longtime attorney for the Alabama Press Association.
On April 27, 2016, the Public Education Employees Heath Insurance Board met all day and voted 7-6 to raise rates substantially on participants in the plan, known as PEEHIP. The Alabama Education Association sued saying that the board violated the Open Meetings Act by meeting in closed session to discuss the increases prior to the vote.
The PEEHIP board met at 9:30 a.m. that morning to hear a staff presentation about the plan's financial status and recommended premium increases. AEA representatives asked to attend that session but were denied.
At 1 p.m., the board met in a previously announced open session and approved the increases.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Johnny Hardwick ruled that the PEEHIP board's vote was invalidated because its members clearly deliberated on the matter during the morning session. He ordered that premium increases held in escrow be returned to the employees.
Hardwick noted that an employee seeking family coverage for a spouse and children would have had to pay an additional $960 a year.
The PEEHIP board contended that the morning session constituted a separate meeting and was a "training session." Under Alabama's law, a quorum of a public body may gather for association meetings; conventions; meetings with local, state and federal officials; training programs and the like.
Hardwick said the PEEHIP board had one topic to consider that day and that it held one, all-day meeting rather than two separate meetings. At the morning meeting it heard recommendations for action and did not participate in training.
"The significance of the decision is going to be dependent on whether it's reviewed by the appellate courts," Bailey said. "Once they make a decision, that binds all the circuit courts."
The PEEHIP board has indicated it will appeal the decision.
Bailey said government bodies need constant training on the Open Meetings Act to remind them about how it works.
The Alabama Education Association is among the most powerful political entities in the state, with the finances to challenge an action by a board such as PEEHIP. Not all government watchdogs, such as smaller news media and citizens groups, can afford to do so.
"I think it's fair to say that the cost of enforcing the Open Meetings Act is a deterrent to small organizations who don't have large budgets to spend in this fashion," Bailey said. "Some public officials have noted and taken advantage of that."
"It is all the more important that the circuit judges of this state are going to be the first line of defense for transparency in Alabama. When they do act, like this judge in Montgomery did, that is a way to get the attention of those in power.
"You may play with fire, but you may get burned."
Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.