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Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota's annual meeting draws low turnout as police, guards stand by

FARGO -- A bank CEO was elected to an open seat on Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota's board of directors today during a lightly attended annual meeting at the Fargo Holiday Inn.

Lynn Paulson of Grafton, CEO of Choice Financial Group, was elected to a three-year term as a consumer director on the board. He was chosen over Bradley Williams, president of Goldmark Property Management in Fargo.

Three incumbent board members - who under corporate bylaws run unopposed - also were re-elected to three-year terms: Dr. Julie Blehm, Laura Carley and board Chairman Dennis Elbert.

Seating was set up for as many as 200 people, but only 12 voting members attended the annual meeting, which capped a year in which the state's dominant private health insurer faced scrutiny for a highly publicized reward trip to the Grand Cayman Islands and an audit of administrative expenses.

Paul von Ebers, in his first annual meeting as the Blues' new chief executive, said afterward he was surprised by the light turnout. Three policyholders spoke during the comment portion of the meeting, he said.

"And they all had, I think, constructive criticism, and we will take all of their comments under consideration," he said.

Reporters weren't allowed in the closed-door meeting.

Two Fargo police officers and private security staff stood guard outside the meeting room doors. Blues spokeswoman Denise Kolpack said the company has its own security at its Fargo headquarters, where the annual meeting usually is held, but police were requested because the meeting was held off-site, due to the potential for a high turnout.

One of those who commented during the meeting was state Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo.

"I was confirmed, I guess, in my belief that there are things that are wrong," he said afterward. "When you have a major institution like this with major controversies, and there are more staff than anybody else showing up for the meeting, means there's a very controlled environment and a population that doesn't feel comfortable taking part, and that's very sad for our state."

Mathern said he raised three concerns to the board, including his contention that the current voting structure limits the pool of applicants.

Von Ebers said others also have commented via letters and phone calls about the election process, the key issue being whether there should be candidates on the ballot to challenge incumbent board members.

"And I've told several people that I've not seen organizations work that way in the past, but I have heard that there are not-for-profit organizations in North Dakota that sometimes do have other candidates, and we're going to gather information on that and bring that to our board," he said.

Mathern said policyholders shouldn't be blamed for not showing up Friday, calling the low attendance "an expression of organizational leadership." He said he believes there are signs that company officials are listening and that there will be change.

"I really think the proof in the pudding is going to be in the change of the organization and next year's annual meeting and how many people show up," he said.