New insurance chief carries more clout

LOW-KEY MAN, HIGH-PRESSURE JOB

June 28, 1993|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Staff Writer

Dwight K. Bartlett III has neither the attention-getting persona nor the maverick style of his predecessor, John A. Donaho. The former state insurance commissioner was fired in April by Gov. William Donald Schaefer after he took to the public spotlight last year to force Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland to open its books and clean up its finances.

But the man to be sworn in today at the helm of the state's insurance division may not need the spotlight as much.

He takes over the Maryland Insurance Administration -- the name for the newly independent agency as of July 1 -- as it receives more attention and money than ever before. And the agency will boast the extra budget and staff that legislators, regulators and the industry have long believed necessary to effectively regulate 1,500 insurance companies.

Mr. Donaho fought for more money for two years and was barred by his boss, Secretary of Licensing and Regulation William A. Fogel Jr., from filling critical positions, but Mr. Bartlett comes into the job with a 24 percent boost in salary, to $90,000; a 20 percent increase in his department budget, to $9 million; and the opportunity to fill 53 unclassified or top level positions. All told, the insurance administration staff would grow by 30 percent.

Mr. Bartlett, a native of Massachusetts, graduated from Harvard College and moved to Maryland in the 1950s to work for Monumental Life Insurance Co. His tall, thin frame, cloaked in a dark suit, fits the central casting image of the insurance executive he once was.

His experience is multifaceted, his philosophy succinct. Above all, he values professionalism. While Mr. Donaho complained of being pressured politically to grant exceptions to Blue Cross, Mr. Bartlett says the job is not much different from the one he held as chief actuary of the U.S. Social Security Administration from 1979 to 1981.

"I tried to be a team player, yet I did that as objectively as I could, and let the chips fall as they may," Mr. Bartlett said. In an interview Friday, the 62-year-old former government actuary and president (for five years, ending in 1989) of Mutual of America Life Insurance Co. said it doesn't matter to whom he reports.

The "most intimidating" part of his new job, he said, will be to implement Maryland's new health care reforms. Insurance companies selling health products have to move to community rating systems, abandoning the practice of excluding pre-existing health conditions from coverage. In addition, they must offer a standard package of health benefits whose features will be determined by the insurance division. A committee has formed to write those standards, "but it is really up to this agency," Mr. Bartlett said, adding he is disappointed the panel has not moved more quickly toward meeting September deadlines. He said he declined to sit on the committee since his agency will ultimately determine the standards.

The commissioners of other states face similar challenges, he said. Last week in Chicago, at the annual meeting of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, members agreed to develop and exchange better ways to regulate health insurance.

Room for improvement

The second pressing task he faces, Mr. Bartlett said, is preparing the agency to meet the accrediting standards of the NAIC.

There's a lot of work that must be done to upgrade the size and competence of the department, he said, adding that he was not criticizing the current staff as much as taking note of the far more complex world in which insurance companies exist. The need for improved oversight was recognized by the General Assembly in beefing up the department, he said.

Today, oversight "demands a much higher level of sophistication in understanding investment products . . . and evaluating them," said Mr. Bartlett, who for the past two years worked as a consultant for the U.S. Justice Department.

Mr. Bartlett already has begun a search to fill the unoccupied posts of chief actuary and chief examiner. Currently, despite billions of dollars in premiums sold by companies doing business in Maryland, the division does not have a certified public accountant as the senior official responsible for ascertaining solvency.

But the division will continue to rely on outside experts to place valuations on investments, particularly real estate, he said.

Deputy to be named

Mr. Bartlett plans to be directly involved in filling the emptpositions. He expects to name a deputy commissioner shortly, a position he said should be filled with someone who is familiar with the state's political and budgetary processes.

Mr. Bartlett also said he would follow NAIC guidelines in holding insurance companies to industry-standard accounting rules. Mr. Donaho and his staff had allowed Blue Cross and Blue Shield a number of exceptions, which allowed the state's largest health insurer to boost the value of its assets.

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