Slatery: Legislators’ Health Coverage Financing is Public Information

Tennessee’s attorney general has weighed in on the dispute over disclosure of financial information related to health benefits that members of the state’s General Assembly receive.

Figures released to the media revealing how much that individual lawmakers pay for insurance coverage — and how much of their coverage costs in turn get picked up by taxpayers — is not “protected health information” under federal law, declared a June 5 opinion signed by Attorney General Herb Slatery and Tennessee Solicitor General Andrée Sophia Blumstein.

Protected health information “does not include — either in the general statutory definition, or as it is commonly understood — the kinds of records that were disclosed here, i.e., records that pertain only to insurance coverage and that have nothing to do with treatment, diagnoses, or medications, and especially not of any individually identifiable person,” according to the opinion.

Requested by Republican state Reps. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland and Rick Womick of Rockvale, the opinion was published on the attorney general’s website Monday.

It added that “the mere fact that any individual member or his or her family members participated in the State’s health insurance program cannot reasonably be deemed (protected health information), especially now when federal law requires every individual to have health care insurance coverage.”

But even if such information was confidential under federal law, Slatery and Blumstein wrote that Tennessee’s Public Records Act would, in effect, trump it. The federal privacy protections contain an exemption that allows for release of otherwise private information when “required by law,” the opinion stated.

In this case, the state’s Public Records Act indeed required it, Slatery and Blumstein wrote.

“The information released comes within the Act’s definition of ‘state record.’ It was made or received by the State as part of its official business, particularly as the employer of the members of the General Assembly,” the opinion reads. “The request for the information was made by citizens of Tennessee. The State was, therefore, required to make the information open for inspection, and those in charge of the records were required to make them available since state law does not provide otherwise.”

This spring media outlets in Tennessee used the Public Records Act to obtain tallies on government spending and premium contribution levels for the health coverage lawmakers receive as part-time employees of the state.

But legislators’ coverage doesn’t end when they leave office. Up to now, members have continued to receive benefits after retirement. And until recently they were allowed to keep their government-funded coverage even if they were removed from office for misconduct or convicted of illegal activity.

The Tennessean reported last week that data released by the state’s Department of Finance and Administration indicates sitting and retired lawmakers pay, on average, about 30 percent of the cost of their insurance plans, with taxpayers picking up the rest.