Tuesday, January 02, 2001

Exiting insurance regulator rebuts critics

New job in industry draws heat

The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — George Nichols III points to his record and work on behalf of consumers when he hears ethical questions raised about his imminent career change.

        Mr. Nichols had served as the state's insurance commissioner since 1996 but resigned this month to join New York Life Insurance Co. as a senior vice president. His last official day in Frankfort was Sunday.

        Critics of his move recently told the New York Times it “looks bad” when a government official goes to work in the industry he regulated.

        Mr. Nichols said he checked his obligations un der a state ethics law before resigning.

        “There are so many places you are vulnerable because of the scope of the job,” he said of his old post in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader. “It's still the best job I have had, bar none, because of the ability to help people every day. That makes you feel pretty good.”

        Mr. Nichols recently completed a year as president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. He is the first African-American to hold the post and the first Kentuckian to head the NAIC, which coordinates insurance programs run by the states.

        His achievements as insurance commissioner include eliminating the annuities tax, increasing the department's inspection staff, doubling the number of insurer exams and adding divisions to the department to investigate fraud and educate the public.

        Mr. Nichols also supported new laws to regulate the industry and upgrade agent licensing, and oversaw the liquidations of three insurers that went under while he was commissioner — MedQuest, Advantage Care and First Mutual — and two that failed earlier — Kentucky Central and Delta American Re-Insurance.

        Health insurance reform was his top priority when he became commissioner, especially protection for the poor and chronically ill who did not have group coverage.

        Dozens of insurers had stopped writing policies in Kentucky by 1996, leaving only Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

        Today, there are four insurers in the market and a fifth is expected to begin writing policies soon. In addition, a state-subsidized health plan called Kentucky Access was approved by the 2000 General Assembly and begins operating Monday.

        Consumer advocates say it's too early to tell whether Kentucky Access will work.

        “It looks and sounds good, but we'll have to wait and see,” said Sheila Schuster, co-chairwoman of Kentuckians for Healthcare Reform and a member of the Health Insurance Advisory Council.

        Ms. Schuster also questioned whether a handful of returning companies can make a difference in the state's individual market.

        “The only reason insur ance companies are coming back is because we gave them everything they wanted,” Ms. Schuster said. “I think he (Mr. Nichols) wanted to make Kentucky look like other states, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

        “I think consumers have lost protections and I would not grade him heavily in that area.”

        But Ms. Schuster praised Mr. Nichols for hiring Fred Nelson to run Kentucky Access, for creating an ombudsman for the Insurance Department and for sharing more information with consumers.

        “He (Mr. Nichols) believed in a process that allowed for much more consumer input. That was a tremendous strength,” agreed Jane Chiles, co-chairwoman of Kentuckians for Healthcare Reform. “Whenever he had an opportunity to structure a process, we found that consumer input was important to him.

        “You couldn't put a price tag on his openness to consumers. It's something we never experienced.”

        Ms. Chiles and Mr. Nichols occasionally disagreed publicly and had heated debates over the creation of the high-risk insurance pool. But she credited Mr. Nichols with gaining the respect of policy makers and building a strong staff, including “wooing Janie Miller back to the department.”

        Ms. Miller, who rejoined the department in 1999 after a short stint with Appalachian Regional Healthcare in Lexington, is succeeding Mr. Nichols as commissioner.

        Mr. Nichols said that “Kentucky Access will show its value and be successful.” He also said the Insurance Department will remain a tough but consumer-friendly regulator, because he and Ms. Miller share ideologies.

        “We are cut from the same cloth,” Mr. Nichols said.


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