The cost of testing for coronavirus is public information
Connecticut taxpayers have no way of knowing how much they’re paying for each COVID-19 test.
That’s because state Comptroller Kevin Lembo has redacted pricing information from contracts at the request of the vendors.
This information is supposed to be public under Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, as Connecticut taxpayers have the right to know how public funds are spent.
Lembo, however, acquiesced to at least six vendors in deeming the information a trade secret, according to a recent report by Connecticut Public Radio.
The “trade secret” exemption is reserved for formulas, programs, techniques or other information that “derive independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known.”
We need public officials who will uphold the public’s right to know, even when partnering with the private sector.
As Mary Schwind, an attorney and managing director at the Freedom of Information Commission told Connecticut Public Radio, this exemption does not cover the prices and fees that vendors charge to public agencies. Schwind said under the law, the decision whether to disclose such information is up to the state agency, not the vendors.
“The burden is on the public agency that seeks to withhold the information to prove that an exemption applies, because the presumption is otherwise,” Schwind said.
It’s a surprising decision from Lembo, who has been a champion of transparency over the last decade.
But it also fits an alarming trend started by the Lamont administration, which has repeatedly allowed the private sector to ignore the public’s right to know and to keep taxpayers in the dark even when it relates to the expenditure of their money.
The trade secret exemption is supposed to encourage ingenuity and cooperation with the government at the same time. Coca-Cola likely would never sell products to public agencies if such contracts risked publicizing the proprietary formula it so famously guards.
But pricing is not ingenuity. It is crucial in evaluating how public officials spend taxpayer funds.
Connecticut remains well short of Gov. Ned Lamont’s initial goal of 100,000 coronavirus tests as part of Phase 2 of the state’s reopening.
Is it because tests are too expensive? How much would Connecticut need to spend to reach that goal? And are taxpayers truly getting the best value?
We can’t know this information when public officials, acting on behalf of vendors, claim the information is exempt under the FOI Act of a trade secret.
Just as Connecticut never should have given an FOI exemption to the failed Partnership for Connecticut, trading secrecy for $100 million. Nor should the now defunct task force on reopening been allowed to operate in private.
We need public officials who will uphold the public’s right to know, even when partnering with the private sector. And the private sector must realize transparency is a cost of doing business.
If a complaint is filed, it’s likely the FOI Commission would rule that Lembo’s office must release pricing information for COVID 19 testing.
But that process takes time and could prevent the public from seeing the information for months, perhaps up to a year.
Mike Savino is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. He is also a reporter with WFSB.
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