Why shouldn’t state Obamacare exchange reveal employee salaries?

A new state law requires the Washington Health Benefit Exchange (WHBE), the state’s Obamacare exchange, to reveal employee salary data to the Legislature and the public. If you’re surprised it doesn’t do that already, you’re not alone.

As everyone is aware, the exchange has had numerous issues since its Fall 2013 rollout to the public. I’ve added my own two cents regarding the exchange’s problems and underperformance. Its board, though, does feature some sharp members who have asked tough questions of the staff and pushed for higher performance.

The board has made some questionable decisions as well. A retroactive raise for the exchange’s now-departing CEO, right after the exchange website’s troubled debut, is one. Bristling under the requirement to disclose salary information is another.

“Quasi-governmental” but heavily funded by taxpayers
Board members are suggesting that being required to supply employee salary data to the state is an attack on the agency’s independence. The WHBE is in a unique category as a “quasi-governmental” agency that is considered a “public-private partnership separate and distinct from the state”.

But that structure does seem to be more public than private. The agency was structured to be governed independently by a board, not the Legislature, but “independence” isn’t the only principle to keep in mind here.

For one thing, any agency, no matter its quasi-governmental or independent status, that is as heavily funded by taxpayers as the WHBE should, as a matter of course, reveal what it pays employees, who received raises, etc. The state exchange is directly underwritten by taxpayers, to the tune of $110 million this biennium. That is in addition to the direct premium taxes paid by those who purchase individual health insurance plans through the exchange.

A spirit of openness and transparency should prevail here, given how much taxpayer money flows to the agency.

A practical consideration, too, should temper the board’s desire to show independence. It would do very little good for the exchange to defy the very body that funds it, especially just to get out of revealing what employees at the agency make.

“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” comes to mind. So should the duties owed to the taxpaying public for its investment. This just isn’t a fight worth having.
-Rob McKenna

Read more: Washington health exchange directors question Legislature’s demand for salary data

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.