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North Dakota Blues chief vows fresh start

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

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota is re-evaluating executive compensation and travel as it works to restore its image following a highly publicized reward trip and severance pay for its ousted top executive.

Tim Huckle, recently named interim president and chief executive officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield, said the health insurance company's board also is reviewing its own compensation.

"They gave me the role but indicated they didn't want anybody that was just going to be a caretaker," Huckle said Wednesday in a meeting with The Forum's editorial board.

A new executive pay consultant, Schuster-Zingheim & Associates, was hired in mid-February, and the board expects to conclude its compensation review by the end of April, said Denise Kolpack, vice president of corporate communications for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Executive and board compensation reviews are part of a broader look at administrative costs, which also are the subject of a "targeted financial examination" by North Dakota insurance regulators.

"We're going to be looking at travel in general, not just marketing travel," said Huckle, who was elevated from his position as executive vice president of health operations after Mike Unhjem was fired March 9.

Unhjem's contract provided a $2.2 million severance package, equal to two years' pay.

His dismissal came four days after Blue Cross Blue Shield decided to end reward trips for their top sales staff. That decision followed a highly publicized $250,000 getaway to a Grand Cayman Islands resort earlier this month.

Huckle said the public won't soon forget the Cayman trip or severance package, noting many still remember a controversial board retreat to Hawaii made 23 years ago.

"We're going to have to walk our way out of it," he said.

Still, he added, "We're viewing this as a fresh start," referring to Unhjem's firing and the reviews concerning the Blues' administrative costs.

A nationwide search will be made to find Unhjem's successor. Huckle is weighing whether to be a candidate for permanent CEO.

"I'll decide whether I want to apply or not," he said. "This will be a great trial run for me. I'm a private person. This is a pretty public job."

Huckle said his Blue Cross Blue Shield salary - $340,620 last year - hasn't increased since he was named interim CEO, although the board is reviewing his pay.

Meanwhile, company executives believe many people mistakenly believe that the nonprofit mutual insurance company does not pay taxes. The company paid premium taxes last year of $10.3 million, and property taxes of $493,962, Kolpack said.