NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NEW YORK · Freedom of Information · April 29, 2005
Private hospital-ambulance contracts must be released
April 29, 2005 · Contracts between private hospitals and private ambulance companies must be fully released to the public by the New York City Fire Department, which failed to prove that disclosure would harm hospital bargaining power, a state appellate court ruled last week. The fire department has copies of the contracts because it administers the city’s emergency response care.
In 2003, Patrick Bahnken, president of the union for the city’s emergency workers, requested records for nearly seven years of contracts between private ambulance companies and private hospitals.
The hospitals were informed of the request, and although some of them thought that the contracts contained trade secrets and should be suppressed, none actively intervened.
The fire department redacted part of the contracts dealing with compensation, patient billing, insurance and quality assurance before releasing them to Bahnken, explaining that divulging the blacked-out items would have compromised the hospitals’ competitive positions in securing future contracts. Bahnken sued.
A state trial court affirmed the fire department’s decision in February 2004, saying the redactions were “neither arbitrary nor capricious.” Bahnken appealed, and the Appellate Division of the N.Y. Supreme Court reversed April 21, ordering the release of the full contracts.
The trial court had not used the appropriate standard, Justice Angela M. Mazzarelli wrote for the majority. The government must provide “a particularized and specific justification for denying access” to properly shield documents, the court held, and the fire department’s vague concerns about the hospitals’ bargaining power were “speculative and unsupported by any evidentiary documentation.”
The fire department’s concerns were undermined by the fact that none of the hospitals, though informed of the request for the contracts, had bothered to intervene on their own behalf Mazzarelli wrote.
Although Justice David Friedman agreed with the majority on most of the redactions, he dissented from the decision with respect to ordering the release of the contract’s price and insurance terms. “Even in the absence of a detailed evidentiary showing,” he wrote, “it is plain that disclosure of such negotiated contractual terms is likely to cause substantial injury” to the hospitals’ future bargaining position with ambulance companies.
The majority said that Friedman was making the “same conclusory argument” that the fire department had.
(Bahnken v. New York City Fire Dep’t; Requestor Counsel: Vivian Brady-Phillips, Gladstein Reif & Meginniss, LLP; New York) — RL