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Opinion: Course correction at Blue Cross

 In November 2019

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Opinion

It took a defiant whistleblower to spark the ouster of the state’s most powerful insurance executive.

News tips come in many forms, but not too often in an aqua blue snail-mail envelope that includes a crumpled note using a dozen different font styles.

That’s how our magazine learned in mid-September that Patrick Conway, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, might be in trouble. The note suggested Conway had been arrested in Randolph County on or about June 22 and noted that “specially (sic) disturbing are the facts. Just look at who was in his car with him when he had the accident.”

My colleague Harrison Miller traveled to Archdale and obtained public records that confirmed Conway’s alcohol-related accident while driving with two of his children. We published the story about the incident in our Daily Digest newsletter and on our website, businessnc.com.

A week later, after stories by other media and broadcasts of a video showing his erratic driving on Interstate 85 began circulating, the state’s most influential insurance executive resigned at the request of his board. He told The Wall Street Journal that the incident was “the worst experience of my life.” Later, he tweeted that “Unfortunately, I have been ‘tried and convicted’ in the media.” On Oct. 8, he was found guilty of DWI and misdemeanor child abuse. (The latter charge is solely because his children were in the car.) He is appealing.

Journalists love exclusives. But ethical ones do not revel in the misfortune of others or take pleasure in kicking someone when he or she is down. Conway’s situation was newsworthy because of his critical job and the Blue Cross board’s inexplicable decision not to disclose the matter.

It’s a board made up of highly respected leaders, as it should be, because the company with $9.9 billion in annual revenue insures or manages the insurance of a majority of North Carolinians. When a prominent CEO makes a poor personal decision involving alcohol use that endangers lives and sparks legal action, the common-sense response — surely taught in every MBA ethics class — would be a fact-filled explanation, details of treatment plans and authentic expressions of remorse and support.

Instead, Blue Cross hired lawyers and PR people who concluded that no one would find out. The whistleblower made sure that didn’t happen. Even after the incident became public, Conway asked N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey not to make a public statement.

In an act of political courage, Causey responded by accusing the board of a cover-up and calling for Conway’s resignation.

To be sure, Conway created significant change in the two years since he left a federal health care post to move to Raleigh for a job that paid $3 million last year. He championed tying health care reimbursement payments to providers’ quality and efficiency rather than traditional fee-for-service. He led an effort to combine N.C. and Oregon Blue Cross affiliates. No doubt he’ll make other contributions in a new role.

Perhaps a silver lining of this sad tale is that boards across North Carolina will become more transparent when crises occur. Each of us makes mistakes and demands accountability. How we respond matters.

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