Tennessee lawmakers chafing under health plan scrutiny

Members of the Tennessee Legislature answer questions on education at the Hamilton County Department of Education in this file photo. The legislative members include, from left, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.


Lawmaker contribution / state contribution / time on plan (goes back to 2008) Sen. Todd Gardenhire, District 10 -- $6,438.36 / $80,757.18 / Since 2012 Sen. Bo Watson, District 11 -- $17,474.35 / $74,800.33 / Since 2008 Rep. Gerald McCormick, District 26 -- $18,701.62 / $82,859.31 / Since 2008 Rep. Patsy Hazelwood, District 27 -- $572.45 / $2,607.75 / Since 2014 Rep. JoAnne Favors, District 28 -- $9,639.04 / $36,427.18 / Since 2008 Rep. Mike Carter, District 29 -- $7,604.82 / $30,999.89 / Since 2012 Rep. Marc Gravitt, District 30 -- Not on plan. Source: The Tennessean, records obtained from Tennessee State Benefits Administration.

In Tennessee, lawmaking is considered only a part-time job.

Most members of Hamilton County's legislative delegation have other jobs, or are retired from jobs that give them access to health coverage.

Still, all but one lawmaker in the seven-member delegation has taken advantage of insurance benefits the state offers to full-time empoyees, choosing them over employer or retiree coverage, or opting to have both.

"I had it as a back-up in case I ever left Morgan-Stanley while in office. I just did not use it," state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said of the insurance, which cost the state nearly $31,000 in premium cost-sharing over the last two years.

Gardenhire, who has come under fire for conflicting statements about the status of his state health coverage, has since canceled his state plan.

While providing health benefits for government officials is not uncommon, Tennessee legislators' taxpayer-funded health plans have been under the microscope after lawmakers' decision to kill Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee proposal. The plan was designed to expand Medicaid insurance to about 280,000 people without impacting the state budget.

Both Gardenhire and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, were among lawmakers who voted down that proposal in committee hearings. Since then, records obtained by The Tennessean show that the state has spent $5.8 million on insurance for lawmakers since 2008.

GOP lawmakers have said the attention paid to their benefits is unconnected to the Insure Tennessee debate, and that it is Democratic-led diversion from larger questions around Insure Tennessee.

Health access advocates, meanwhile, argue that the scrutiny is warranted. Republican lawmakers voted against expanding coverage under the name of fiscal conservatism, yet are willing to take full advantage of health coverage on the state's dime for themselves.

The revenue to pay for those plans comes out of the paychecks of "waitresses, construction workers and home health aides" who "suffer needlessly without coverage," said Michele Johnson, director of the Tennessee Justice Coalition, a leading advocate for Medicaid expansion.

"Tennesseans believe that providing health coverage is vitally important to our identity as a state," said Johnson, referencing a Vanderbilt University poll released Wednesday that showed 64 percent of Tennesseans support Insure Tennessee.

"That's also why we provide comprehensive health coverage for life to part-time seasonal employees and their families -- our legislators. The fact that those who benefit from the kindness and generosity of Tennessee taxpayers refuse the same coverage to Tennesseans in the coverage gap shows just how out of touch they are with the values of Tennesseans."

Sen. Bo Watson, who directs therapy services with HCA Healthcare-owned Parkridge Health System, said there "wasn't really a calculus" to his decision to sign up for the state health plan versus his employer plan.

He called the scrutiny of lawmakers' benefits after the Insure Tennessee vote a "rhetorically false comparison."

"You're comparing a benefit of employment to a benefit of entitlement," he said. "We may be paid part time. But we're working throughout the year. You're calling me now, for example. The idea that we're part time is really just more an accounting than it is reality."

But lawmakers don't have to be working for the state to stay on the plan. State law allows former legislators to stay on the health plan, provided they pay their premiums, for life -- no matter how long they have served in office.

A Knoxville News-Sentinel report Thursday found that 148 former lawmakers remain on the state plan.

Gardenhire, a wealth management adviser, has been at the center of much of the controversy surrounding lawmaker benefits since February, when a Democratic lawmaker pointed out that most lawmakers were on state-funded plans. Gardenhire shot back that he has a "very nice plan" with his private employer, Morgan-Stanley.

After records showed that Gardenhire was among lawmakers on the state's health plan, the senator acknowledged he had been on the plan, but assumed it was required and did not use it.

He later denied to the The Tennessean that he had a son on his plan, though he later admitted he had been wrong and said he had canceled his family's coverage in 2013 and 2014.

On Wednesday, Gardenhire told the Times Free Press that he never intended to mislead anyone about his insurance, saying his understanding of the timeline of his coverage had been "off."

"I did not forget I had it; it was just not something I ever used," Gardenhire said.

Gardenhire then insisted that "the two issues are not connected."

"The Democrat party has been successful in diverting the attention from the real issue, which is questioning whether Insure Tennessee is sustainable in the long run," he said. "I was not elected to vote on what is popular, but what is best for our state."

Chattanooga Democratic Rep. JoAnne Favors, who has been a longtime supporter of Medicaid expansion, is on the state health plan, but said the scrutiny of the benefit is fair.

"We shouldn't be involved in activities that are perceived as hypocritical," she said.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, is on three insurance plans: through her former employer, Medicare and the state. A newly elected legislator, this was her first year having access to all three of the plans, she said, so she decided to sign up for all of the plans until she could decide the best arrangement.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who owns a commercial real estate company, said he got on the state plan back in 2008 for "simplicity's sake." His business could have purchased him a health plan, he said -- or he could have gotten on his wife's plan. But since she works at Chattanooga State, it would still be a state plan.

McCormick, who co-sponsored Insure Tennessee in the House, said he sees lawmaker benefits and the Medicaid expansion vote "as two separate issues," but said he had heard plenty from constituents about the matter.

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who is also on the state plan, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Contact staff writer Kate Belz at [email protected] freepress.com or 423-757-6673.