Kansas defends decision to black out drug report

A state agency said it redacted large portions of a prescription drug spending audit at the request of a contractor who argued it was necessary to protect trade secrets.



October 19, 2021 - 10:05 AM

A state agency is defending its blacking out of much of a report commissioned with tax dollars. It says it was accommodating a contractor that argued the redactions were needed to protect trade secrets.

The report is an audit of prescription drug spending for state employees, their families and retirees. When the Kansas News Service asked for a copy, the state provided a heavily redacted version.

That decision came under fire on Monday. Some members of the seven-person board that oversees the state health insurance plan questioned why details of the audit should be kept from public view.

“That seems crazy to me,” Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt said. “It doesn’t seem right.”

Another member of the panel noted that tax dollars paid for the audit.

“So going forward,” state employee Rebekah Gaston said, “are there ways that we can make this more transparent?”

Law professors who reviewed the redactions for the Kansas News Service struggled to understand why the state would consider it legal to shield the information. The state said it was protecting trade secrets.

But many of the blacked-out details — such as the number of prescriptions the plan covered in 2019 — are available in other public documents, including on the state’s own website. (The Kansas News Service was able to view some of the obscured content because the redactions were done incorrectly and the text beneath the black boxes remained accessible.)

Officials at the Kansas Department of Administration said they had followed standard procedures.

But they also shifted some of the responsibility onto the authors of the $100,000 report, a private auditing firm called PillarRx.

PillarRx considered its report confidential, a lawyer for the Department of Administration said. The department gave the firm the option of redacting it, and the firm did so.

So PillarRx sent a redacted version to the department, but the department felt the redactions went too far, said John Yeary, the Kansas Department of Administration’s chief counsel.

“So we pushed back,” he said. “And they came back with (a new version that) was ultimately provided” to the Kansas News Service.

In that version, large swaths and even whole pages of the report on $160 million in state spending on medications remain blacked out.

Schmidt took issue with the department’s explanation.