Erlanger Hospital is seen from the UTC library's balcony in this Dec. 9, 2014, file photo.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire may have earned a reputation in Tennessee as a staunch opponent of a plan that would have brought health insurance to 280,000 low-income state residents.

But when it comes to Erlanger Health System, the senator has sought a role as champion of health insurance access, pressuring the hospital to subsidize retirees who had been cut from its benefits plan last year.

Angry over the public hospital board's private discussion before it voted in December to pay $1.7 million in management bonuses, Gardenhire this year threatened to pass legislation ending the board's ability to hold closed meetings and reorganizing its structure.

The senator vowed that Erlanger had to do two things in order "to make Todd Gardenhire go away."

First, he said, the board must hold a second vote on the executive bonuses. Second, Erlanger must fund health insurance plans for 118 Erlanger retirees who lost coverage in December after Erlanger officials deemed it unaffordable.

Four months later, that's a deal Erlanger officials appear willing to make.

Hospital trustees voted to pass the management incentive plan Friday, and Erlanger officials decided to allocate up to $225,000 total to assist retirees touched by last year's cuts.

"We heard the concern from some of the early retirees and concern from others and government officials who have interest in Erlanger," said Chief Administrative Officer Gregg Gentry. "We decided that the right thing to do at this time is to provide that subsidy."

Hospital management, not the publicly appointed board, handles retiree insurance. Gentry couldn't say how much individual retirees would receive, but said the amounts would be paid as lump sums.

The senator has said repeatedly that he doesn't want to micromanage the hospital, but wouldn't budge on the retiree insurance. Erlanger enlisted Claude Ramsey, the former Hamilton County mayor and deputy to Gov. Bill Haslam who formed a consulting agency, to negotiate with Gardenhire.

After the deal was struck, Gardenhire said, "Fulfilling a promise to retirees is just the right thing to do."

"I am sorry this had to come to this kind of public discussion; but I'm glad it is behind Erlanger and I want to thank the Board for voting to take care of these people that worked hard for Erlanger in the past," Gardenhire said in a written statement.

Advocates for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee said Gardenhire's concern about the Erlanger retirees should make him more sympathetic to the plight of other Tennesseans who could have been insured through Haslam's proposed Insure Tennessee plan.

"Senator Gardenhire is to be commended for his concern about the health insurance of Erlanger retirees," said Michele Johnson, director of the Nashville-based Tennessee Justice Center. "We hope that he will find it in his heart to have similar concern for the 25,700 working people in his district who have no health insurance at all [nearly 2,000 of whom are veterans]."

Contact staff writer Kate Belz at or 423-757-6673.