BlueCross' push for diversity incurs wrath of conservative group

photo The Cameron Hill headquarters of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee in downtown Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE - BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender business owners in a push for supplier diversity is generating fire and brimstone from a conservative Christian advocacy group headed by former state Sen. David Fowler.

In an email, the one-time Signal Mountain attorney who is now president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee accuses the Chattanooga-based insurer of having "officially joined the 'culture wars' with a quiet little move."

"Appears that the insurer is trading in its traditional blue for a rainbow of colors," jabbed Fowler, alluding to the color blue BlueCross uses in promotions and the multicolored gay-pride flag.

He cites an Aug. 24 letter BlueCross sent to company suppliers. In it, BlueCross states the company, through its Supplier Diversity Team, is "passionately adopting the spirit of diversity within its supplier business relationships," including lesbian-, gay-, bisexual- and transgender-owned businesses.

Fowler said that if BlueCross is "so passionate" about the issue, "where were the press releases? Maybe they didn't want to be too 'loud' about it because they didn't want all their conservative, pro-family premium payers to realize that their premium dollars were going to support the advancement and cultural acceptance of homosexual conduct."

The letter to suppliers also says BlueCross is devoting "considerable time and energy toward the creation of innovative outreach efforts designed to benefit all parties."

A "key initiative" in that, the letter says, is to "create and enhance procurement contracting opportunities with companies that classify as small, disadvantaged, minority, women, service-disabled veteran, veteran-owned, HUB-zone [low-income areas] and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender owned businesses."

BlueCross spokeswoman Mary Danielson said diversity outreach is nothing new for the nonprofit insurers, which has private pay customers but also extensive state and federal government contracts.

photo Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler

"BlueCross is committed to supplier diversity as a good business practice," Danielson said by email. "As part of that effort we regularly mail a supplier self certification form to our 3,000 vendors. We mail this form to update their business classification records in our system. Those classifications, provided by the federal government, cover a range of groups.

"Additionally," Danielson said, "maintaining accurate vendor record information is a federal requirement when serving as a government contractor."

In his email, Fowler says that "clearly the LGBT community is no longer disadvantaged nor unable to protect itself in the business world."

The former lawmaker speculated that BlueCross' move may stem from what he says was a backlash from national gay organizations this spring after the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a Fowler-generated bill that banned cities from enacting ordinances banning anti-gay discrimination by local government-contractors.

The original bill declared local ordinances cannot go beyond state law in the dealing with discrimination, health insurance, minimum wages or family leave. After running into trouble, the bill, aimed at a Metro Nashville ordinance, was restricted to banning anti-gay discrimination by local government contractors.

The bill was supported by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry. After it passed, gay organizations put pressure on national firms and other companies belonging to the state Chamber. The Chamber eventually reversed its position and at the last minute urged Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to veto it. Instead, Haslam signed it.

"Earlier this year," Fowler said, "Blue Cross was criticized by national homosexual rights groups because one of its employees was on the board of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce when its board voted to publicly support [the bill] that, among other things, prevented local governments from mandating that private businesses adopt pro-homosexual employment policies."

"So," Fowler added, "perhaps to further make up for its 'offense' in having an employee part of the Tennessee Chamber's scandalous support of House Bill 600, Blue Cross felt it needed to bring LGBT-owned companies onto its list of businesses they want to try to help along."

BlueCross spokeswoman Danielson said "there is no connection to our ongoing supplier diversity efforts and the recent legislation."

Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide organization involved in promoting and protecting civil rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, was critical of Fowler.

"He's trying to claim the victim mantle," Sanders said. "He's trying to ... make an assertion that right-wing evangelicals are being beat up on in the culture and use that as a rallying cry."

Fowler started the Family Action Council of Tennessee after leaving the General Assembly following 12 years in the state Senate.

The group's stated mission is "to equip Tennesseans and their elected officials to effectively promote and defend a culture that values the traditional family, for the sake of the common good. Our belief is that healthy families and communities come about when basic values from the Bible are embraced."

Blue Cross serves 3 million Tennesseans and is the state's largest health insurer.

Connect with the Times Free Press on Facebook