Monday, October 3, 2016

The revolving door at state insurance commissions; Arkansas case makes the point

Posted By on Mon, Oct 3, 2016 at 7:26 AM

MAKES A POINT: Julie Benafield, former Arkansas insurance commissioner, makes a point for authors of stories about insurance industry influence on state regulators.
  • MAKES A POINT: Julie Benafield, former Arkansas insurance commissioner, makes a point for authors of stories about insurance industry influence on state regulators.
The Center for Public Integrity and the Washington Post have combined for a report on how the insurance industry lavishes junkets and entertainment on insurance commissioners and how often insurance commissioners transition from state jobs to fatter jobs working for insurance companies.

This is old news in Arkansas of course. Commissioners move to and fro, too. The current commissioner, Allen Kerr, came from the insurance business (and he has had a whirlwind round of traveling in his first two years in office, when he's also been busy devising plans for a monumental new office building for himself across the street from the Capitol.)

The reporting project happens to use as its anecdotal lead none other than a former Arkansas regulator:

When the Arkansas insurance commissioner weighed the merits of a hospital’s billing complaint against United Healthcare, her interactions with one of the nation’s largest health insurers extended far beyond her department’s hearing room.

During months of deliberations, Commissioner Julie Benafield Bowman met repeatedly with United Healthcare lawyers and lobbyists over lunch and drinks at venues such as the Country Club of Little Rock.

“I had a blast with you Monday night,” Benafield emailed United Healthcare lawyer Bill Woodyard, himself a former state insurance commissioner. “Thank you so much for entertaining us.”

Benafield ultimately decided the case in United Healthcare’s favor — a 2008 ruling that stood to save the company millions of dollars. Nearly two years later, by the time a judge vacated the commissioner’s orders because there was “an appearance of impropriety in the proceedings,” Benafield had moved on: She was working for United Healthcare, having joined at least three of her predecessors representing insurers in Arkansas.

Woodyard is deceased, and Benafield has said her meetings with United Healthcare lobbyists did not influence her decisions as commissioner. United Healthcare has said it did not discuss employment with Benafield until after she had issued her final ruling in the case.

Benafield was a Huckabee-era insurance commissioner. She moved back into the public sector in the 2014 Republican sweep as chief of staff for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. An appearance of impropriety in her handling of the United Healthcare case was also old news in Arkansas.

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