State Reps. Capriglione, Hunter Anticipate CoronaVirus Information Sharing Debate during 2021 Legislative Session

As nursing homes became CoronaVirus hot spots, they've also become 'black holes' of information regarding patients and the disease.

AUSTIN, Texas (Texas Insider Report) — "The process of open government is to get information to the public. This pandemic has shone a light on the need to open up government to individuals.” said State Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi,) addressing a recent “Government Transparency in the Age of a Pandemic” workshop organized by the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.
“If you're a taxpayer, and its taxpayers’ funds that are going to a particular group, then why aren’t you as a taxpayer getting information about that group?” asked Hunter. “You paid for it, and it’s good to get information out there,” Hunter (at right,) said.

“I'm concerned that some are making the process too complicated – Why are we going through speed bump after speed bump to get information?,” Hunter asked.

State Rep. Hunter and others in attendence predicted that legislation designed to keep local governments and other public-service related entities transparent during crises such as the COVID-19 CoronaVirus pandemic will be introduced in the upcoming 2021 Legislative Session.

Other legislative leaders attending included State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Tarrant County) – who as chairman of the powerful Texas House Appropriations Committee, is also an advocate of open government.

“We recently had 12 deaths in a small town, and they came out of one nursing home. Family members were frantic to get information, but they were stonewalled by officials who said it was a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act) issue. That’s an obvious fix we should be able to work on,” said Capriglione.

The “Government Transparency in the Age of a Pandemic” workshop-webinar organized by the United Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation addressed three main concerns that have arisen during the CoronaVirus shutdown at its Thursday, June 4th event.
  1. Families have had trouble getting information about how particular Nursing Homes have been affected by the virus or how the organizations are dealing with healthy and safety.
  2. Numerous government entities have kept journalists out of their meetings, citing the “Rule of 10.” However, the Texas Open Meetings Law requires that all government entities, no matter how small, must properly post times and places of all meetings and allow media access.
  3. Some governments have refused or been slow to fulfill requests filed with them under the Freedom of Information Act, blaming reduced staff and resources for their inability to comply.
Calling the CoronaVirus pandemic an extremely rare, “black swan” event, Capriglione said the general public needs to learn from the current situation, and prepare for other or future disasters.

Capriglione pointed to the nursing home situation experienced by family members across the nation as a prime example. The Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act protects individuals from having their personal health information revealed to other entities, including medical providers, insurance companies or others – which has led to conflicts involving even family members who desperately have sought to assist their loved ones.

Capriglione (left,) noted that HIPAA regulation concerns do not involve the number of people who have died in a particular facility.

Members of the Texas Press Association and the Texas Association of Public Broadcasters were also present during the webinar. Mr. Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, brought up the same nursing home example during a panel discussion.

“We're wanting to work with legislators on how to fix what has been broken during this pandemic,” Baggett said. “It’s a heck of a note when family members with a relative in a facility can’t get the nursing home to talk to them.”

Tim Archuleta, executive editor of the El Paso Times and a former editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, urged newsrooms across Texas to contact their local elected officials and State Legislators to push for support and the planned legislation.

“We can’t win this battle on our own,” Archuleta said. “We need our elected leaders to join us, and expand the fight.”

“This will be a fight — you can count on it,” predicted Baggett. “These groups that like to put the speed bumps up will fight it (when the legislature convenes) in January, every step of the way.”