Mississippi slow to share information with public

Published 11:08 pm Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Easily found on the opening page of the Florida Department of Health Web site is a link to a 2007 executive order by the state’s governor, Charlie Crist, a Republican. The order created a new Open Government Commission because, Crist says, “Open and accessible government is the key to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in their government and its ability to effectively serve its citizens.”

The commission was diverse, with members including from leaders in law enforcement, health care and First Amendment law. Its final report also on the Internet was signed in January. Not surprisingly, because Florida has been on the cutting edge of consumer awareness, the commission called for more uniformity and ease in providing access to public records and reports kept in electronic databases.

The Sunshine State’s approach is radical in comparison to its neighbors.

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For instance, a resident of Stuart, Fla., (population 15,000) who hears about a drug arrest in his neighborhood and visits the police department Web site can read a detailed report, including the names, ages and addresses of the people charged. There’s also a daily log, listing every call, every traffic stop.

Contrast that with Mississippi, (population 2.9 million) where even the statewide narcotics enforcement agency offers little more than a top-10 most wanted list on its Web site.

A central job responsibility of thousands of employees in all states is to inspect and write reports on roads, bridges, restaurants, nursing homes and so much more. Another central responsibility is certification or licensure of people in myriad careers — barber, funeral director, pharmacist, nurse, physician, teacher, attorney and so many others.

The commission in Florida noted that in recent years, more and more of the reports are gathered in electronic form. The Health Department representative poking around the kitchen at a pizza place no longer has a clipboard and a pencil. Today’s inspectors have laptop computers. They type in their findings and transmit their reports to a database.

So with unprecedented speed and ease, the commission noted, the public can have instant access to consumer information they’ve long had a legal right to see.

A problem that sometimes arises is that one portion of a record is clearly public, such as compensation paid to a state employee while another portion is explicitly private, such as the Social Security numbers also in a payroll report.

Liz Sharlot, director of communications for the Mississippi Department of Health, said that’s sometimes an issue.

“There are myriad open-records requests that do not lend themselves to online display, e.g. names and other personal information must be redacted before a member of the public could or would receive the information,” she said.

The health department is repository of all sorts of inspection and certification reports. It has oversight of scads of facilities and individuals hospitals, clinics, food-handlers, day-care centers, water systems, boilers, milk processors and that’s just for starters. Its Bureau of Vital Statistics maintains records of every birth, every death.

Yet the only inspections readily available on the Internet are for restaurants, which, Sharlot said, the department posts due to the simplicity and ease, not because of any state requirement. So any consumer can log on and learn, for example, the Doe’s Eat Place location in Starkville got an “A” from the last inspector. Anything less would also be reported, along with details of the deficiency.

While inspections of day-care centers and licensing information on health professionals might be relevant and helpful to consumers, the health department requires that a request form be printed out and mailed or faxed before the record is made available. As with many departments in Mississippi and elsewhere, written requests must be accompanied by payment of fees.

Another area of high consumer interest is insurance. When home and auto companies pitch their policies, price and the speed and ease of handling claims are what they stress.

The Mississippi Insurance Department must approve all policies written in the state and certify companies to do business here. It doesn’t have much control over rates, but does investigate complaints by consumers.

What it does not have is any way for the public to see which companies are attracting the most complaints and why.

Texas does. Prominently listed on the Texas Department of Insurance Web site are links showing the number of consumer complaints any company in the state has drawn.

As a candidate for Mississippi insurance commissioner, Mike Chaney indicated support for helping consumers with more online information. Since taking office, his office has said placing the information on Internet that Texas and other states do would require more staffing than the department has available.

Everywhere, it seems, information about attorneys is hard to find. While the Mississippi Bar Association publishes written accounts of lawyers and admonished, suspended or disbarred in its monthly magazine, this information is not placed on the Web site. The site does explain the complaint procedures and contains an e-mail link to request complaint forms.

When it comes to nursing homes, Sharlot said the inspection reports are too complex to offer a single grade. Louisiana offers a hybrid form of information, identifying institutions that have been cited, but requiring a payment of fees and a request by mail for full reports.

A search for nursing home inspection reports also leads to private, commercial firms selling the information to a complicated federal Department of Health and Human Services Web site that says it can be used to compare nursing homes.