March 15, 2011; Source: Courier-Journal | A judge ruled earlier this week that a nonprofit health care provider under contract to Kentucky to serve Medicaid patients isn't entitled to a free pass under the state's open records law. Instead, Passport Health Plan, according to the circuit court judge, is a public, not private, entity.

Judge Susan Schultz Gibson ruled that because Passport "exists for the purpose of administering the Medicaid program on behalf of the Commonwealth" it is obligated to turn over documents that the Courier-Journal has been seeking for more than a year as part of the newspaper's investigation into the organization's pay practices.

Passport, which is paid $740 million annually by Kentucky to provide health care for about 165,000 low-income and disabled Medicaid patients in 16 counties, was severely criticized in a state audit last year. The Courier-Journal reports that the audit "blasted Passport management for spending on meals, travel and lobbying, and it questioned the transfer of about $30 million in reserve funds to University Hospital and other physician groups and hospitals involved in Passport operations."

Since then, and following a threat by Gov. Steve Beshear to terminate the state's contract, Passport’s CEO and board chairman, Dr. Larry Cook, resigned, along with Executive Vice President Shannon Turner and Associate Vice President Nici Gaines. A lawyer for the Courier-Journal called the judge's ruling a win for both the paper and the public. “It’s the right decision,” said Jon Fleischaker. “We’re talking about an agency that spends almost $800 million a year in public money.”—Bruce Trachtenberg