- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana health officials fired two state employees for turning over personal information, including Social Security numbers, of scores of childcare providers to three state legislators, according to documents and interviews with people involved in the terminations.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services officials recently confirmed that the employment of the two workers was terminated last fall after internal checks discovered the unauthorized release.

The data included personal information of 185 childcare providers taking part in an early childhood service program, according to letters sent by department director Richard Opper in February and March to the three legislators, Rep. Tom Burnett, Sen. Roger Webb and Sen. Bob Keenan.

Copies of the letters were obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by health department officials.

“It’s a very serious issue,” said department spokesman Jon Ebelt. “It’s a violation of public trust.”

A former auditor with the agency, David Hansen, confirmed during an interview that he was fired in November. He was identified in Opper’s letter as the source of the information given to the legislators. The AP could not immediately reach the second employee for comment.

Hansen is contesting his firing through his union, he told the AP. He declined to answer questions about the data other than to say he turned it over after the legislators requested it from him.

Chris Gallus, an attorney for Burnett, R-Bozeman, disputed Hansen’s account.

“He provided information that we did not request from him, and (the information) had already been disposed of before the department made any inquiry,” Gallus said.

Opper told Burnett, Webb and Keenan in his letters to them to immediately destroy the documents. He also requested that the lawmakers send him a list of other documents provided by Hansen, as well as a list of people with whom the information might have been shared.

Keenan denied receiving any personal data and said he ignored Opper’s letter.

“He has no authority over me. He’s not director of the state Senate. So I just blew it off,” said Keenan, R-Bigfork, on Wednesday.

Webb, R-Billings, said he told Opper in a phone call that the claims in Opper’s letter were unfounded, but would not say whether he received information from the former state employee.

“I’ve got lots of information that is not public record from the department,” Webb said. He declined to elaborate.

Officials could not immediately say what value the information might have for the legislators, who are among a group of Republican lawmakers scrutinizing the agency’s programs and spending, particularly the state’s Medicaid expansion program.

“It’s unfortunate that legislators who opposed Medicaid expansion are attempting to exploit information they never should have received in the first place,” Opper said in a statement.

The agency said it informed childcare providers that their personal information had been divulged after officials began an internal investigation in August 2015 based on reports from the state’s legislative services that legislators might have become privy to private information.

That discovery came months after the information was given to the three lawmakers in February and March of last year.

Republican lawmakers are pressing the state for information about Medicaid enrollees, including income data that they say could clarify the state’s financial obligations because of Medicaid expansion.

On Monday, Burnett, Webb and Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, sued the department for information about people signing up for the program under the state’s Medicaid expansion program. All three have been concerned about possible fraud and have sought government records to buttress their claims.

Medicaid provides health insurance to low-income residents. A divided legislature last year expanded eligibility qualifications for the program. Since new eligibility rules went into effect earlier this year, more than 44,000 low-income Montanans have enrolled under the new guidelines.


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