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BCBS withdraws N.D. bill after talk with Hamm

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota Interim President and CEO Tim Huckle

FARGO - One sign of a thaw in the chilly relations between North Dakota's insurance regulator and Blue Cross Blue Shield came Wednesday with a gesture from the Blues' new interim CEO.

The health insurance company withdrew its bill seeking to set parameters in the insurance commissioner's ability to review premium rate requests.

Also Wednesday, the chairman of Blue Cross Blue Shield said the board will "take a more assertive role in the future" as it moves to restore public confidence in the aftermath of public furor over a $250,000 reward trip to a Caribbean resort.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota asked that the rate-review bill be withdrawn when it came up for a hearing in a House committee after passing the Senate.

After the request, the House Industry Business and Labor committee sent the bill to the full House with a unanimous "do not pass" recommendation.

The move followed a discussion Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm had with Tim Huckle, named Tuesday as the interim CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield after the ouster of Mike Unhjem.

"It was a very positive exchange of information between us," Hamm said of the phone conversation. Both agreed to work to resolve their differences, he said, but declined to cite specifics beyond the withdrawn legislation.

Hamm's department and the Blues have been at odds for months over his denial of premium rate increases the insurer has sought ranging from 15 to 20 percent.

Once again Wednesday, Blue Cross Blue Shield refused to disclose the terms of any severance package with Unhjem, who had worked at the firm for 23 years before his dismissal Tuesday.

"We cannot legally share any information regarding Mike Unhjem's employment agreement at this time," said company spokeswoman Denise Kolpack.

Unhjem's severance, however, could be part of the "targeted financial examination" Hamm's department is conducting of Blue Cross Blue Shield's travel expenses and executive compensation, which likely will take two to three months. Results of the examination are confidential until a final report is released.

Dennis Elbert, chairman of the Blue Cross Blue Shield board, said directors now will take a more hands-on approach.