A state agency’s release of the cost of lawmaker health insurance caused a commotion among several who tried to stop it, claiming violation of privacy laws.
The information, requested by The Tennesseean using the Tennessee Public Records Act, showed that the state has spent $5.8 million since 2008 for health insurance premiums for state lawmakers, with lawmakers contributing $1.4 million toward their health plans.
The Tennessean got a first look at the records, requested in February, on Wednesday. The records showed how much each individual lawmaker had paid for his or her health insurance in that time period and how much the state had picked up.
The same day, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin, issued a press release saying, “Whoever authorized the release of this information showed a clear lack of judgment and, at the very least, should be reprimanded immediately. If this is the executive branch’s way of negotiating with the legislative branch about Insure Tennessee, I would encourage them to strongly and swiftly rethink their strategy.”
The newspaper also reported an email sent by state Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, asking fellow lawmakers to support “a potential injunction” to stop the release of the health benefit information.
The furor prompted Gov. Bill Haslam to issue a statement saying the health insurance coverage is a “benefit that legislators earn and deserve as part of their service to the state.”
The Tennessean’s story, State releases records for lawmaker health premiums, includes a partial list of lawmakers and how much has been paid in premiums for each. More from the story:
“Since February, media outlets have made several open records requests involving health insurance coverage for legislators. According to Tennessee’s open records law, the state had no choice but to turn over the information that was requested,” Haslam said in the statement. “It is important to note, those requests have not involved legislators’ personal, private medical information.
“We have been communicating with legislative staff since early February to make sure they were aware of these requests and the information we’ve been required to make public. We are not obligated legally nor do we have any intention to turn over legislators’ personal, private medical information.”
The Tennessean is not seeking information about specific medical procedures or conditions – only the cost to provide the health insurance for lawmakers.
At one point, a request by The Tennessean and other media outlets to find out which lawmakers received the health benefit was temporarily denied, with one agency saying releasing that data would violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). That information was eventually released. The latest data took longer.
Larry Martin, the commissioner of the state Department of Finance and Administration, wrote a letter to lawmakers saying that the information requested by The Tennessean wasn’t subject to federal health privacy rules.
“Therefore, because the information requested is not protected under the state open records law, we were required to release the information,” Martin said.
Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit legal firm that advocates for access to health care, said many families go without the type of benefits lawmakers receive.
“Legislators appreciate how important health coverage is for their families, and the insurance we taxpayers provide for them gives them financial security and peace of mind,” Johnson said. “It is disappointing that they can’t appreciate how waitresses, construction workers, students and home health aids in this state deserve this same peace of mind for their families.”
The Tennessee Health Care Campaign issued a statement about the release of the records.
“These numbers reveal a stunning hypocrisy,” said Walter Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign. “The loudest opponents of a legislative debate on Insure Tennessee receive as much as $93,600 in premium support for their health insurance.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s spokesman issued a statement about balancing government transparency with lawmaker health privacy.
“Everyone agrees that Tennesseans should have access to all the information to which they are entitled,” said Adam Kleinheider, communications director for Ramsey. “At the same time, we need to make sure that personal and private data are not sacrificed. As we go forward, Lt. Gov. Ramsey hopes we are able to strike that delicate balance between privacy and transparency.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, noted that lawmakers pay the same premium as state employees.
“As long as what is turned over does not reveal personal information, I understand that Open Records Laws require its release,” Harwell said.
State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, issued a statement supporting the release of the premium payment amounts for lawmakers.
“It is the ultimate in hypocrisy,” Stewart said. “To refuse to provide for the working poor of Tennessee, while trying to keep the insurance benefits they receive a secret illustrates their contempt for Tennesseans.”