BOISE, Idaho — A coalition of news organizations has asked a federal appeals court to order the release of sealed witness testimony and exhibits in an antitrust trial involving the expansion of a health care system.
The organizations challenged a protective order issued earlier this year by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill that allowed attorneys for St. Luke's Health System, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, the Federal Trade Commission and others to keep a large amount of testimony and evidence hidden from public view.
The FTC and St. Alphonsus contend that St. Luke's violated anti-trust laws and illegally hindered competition when the company purchased a large Nampa-based medical practice. The news organizations say the matter is of public interest because the outcome is likely to affect a large number of medical consumers in Idaho.
The appeal was filed Tuesday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/1co1zMo), The Associated Press, The Times-News, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho Press-Tribune, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and the Idaho Press Club.
"The public's right to know in the case at bar is absolutely compelling, critical and important," the news coalition's attorney, Chuck Brown, wrote in the appeal.
The trial began Sept. 23 and ended about a month later. More than half of the first week occurred behind closed doors, and throughout the proceedings some exhibits and testimony were kept hidden after attorneys on both sides cited trade secrets.
When the news organizations first protested, Winmill said he would require parties in the case to give compelling evidence that the material should be sealed. Among other things, Winmill allowed trade secrets to include documents and testimony that could reveal how a health insurance company, hospital or medical practice makes or negotiates contracts, how much a company pays, and future plans.
The news organizations contend the judge fell short in his enforcement of the "compelling reason" rule.
The arguments "routinely just set forth the entity's desires and opinions as to what it wants to be removed from public view, but none of them reveal to this court nor the lower court 'compelling reasons' to do so," Brown wrote, noting that more than 575 exhibits were sealed.
He also argued that consumers and patients should be given a clearer window into the health care industry.
"The District Court, the litigants, and the well-represented nonlitigants are simply hoping that by filing generalized, alarmist affidavits after the fact that the Ninth Circuit Court will blink and sidestep the declarative and clear standards this court has set forth for many years," Brown wrote.
Ken Dey, spokesman for St. Luke's Regional Medical Center, said the company believes in the need for the court to be as open as possible.
"We believe that the Judge's order outlining the process on what would be open and what would be closed struck a proper balance to accomplish that," Dey said.
Jennifer Krajnik, a spokeswoman for Saint Alphonsus, said the company had no comment on the matter.
Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com