Oxendine taking on one-time campaign backers at Blue Cross

John Oxendine Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

The lawsuit that former state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine filed this week against Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia was a case of an ex-politician biting the hand that once helped feed his campaigns.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield wasn’t Oxendine’s biggest donor by any measure, but its employees also weren’t exactly pikers when it came to writing checks for the commissioner’s political endeavors.

Oxendine, who served 16 years as insurance commissioner before running for governor in 2010, filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of 11 surgical centers and their patients.

The lawsuit argues that Blue Cross fraudulently continued to charge high premiums to customers while at the same time cutting payments to out-of-network providers. Oxendine, a lawyer, argued that Blue Cross justified the higher premiums by telling customers they could be treated by higher-paid, out-of-network providers.

Blue Cross, the state’s largest health insurer, said the charges are unfounded and that providers were adequately compensated.

While in office, Oxendine set new records for money-raising by a state regulator, regularly hitting up those who worked in the insurance and small loan businesses for contributions.

Oxendine generally didn’t face much in the way of re-election opposition, but he kept his campaign warchest full and his profile high.

Records show that executives and top employees of Blue Cross and its parent company contributed about $24,000 to Oxendine’s re-election campaigns between 2006 and 2010. Almost $18,000 came at a November 2007 fundraiser. By then, Gov. Sonny Perdue was in his second and final term and Oxendine was being talked about as a possible candidate for governor in 2010.

The contributions didn’t necessarily make Oxendine go easy on Blue Cross.

While still commissioner in 2010, he battled with Blue Cross over clauses the company included in contracts with hospitals to keep them from making better deals with other health insurers. Oxendine said that the practice stifled competition and kept prices high. Blue Cross said it helped consumers.

In another case that year, he ruled that under state law, Blue Cross couldn’t prevent a cancer treatment center from joining the company’s health maintenance organization network.

A year earlier, Oxendine joined a national dispute over medical rate-setting and launched an inquiry into how Georgia health insurers calculate payments to physicians for out-of-network care. At the time, state and national medical groups were suing insurers such as Blue Cross’ parent company over such payments.

With a big, deep Republican field in the governor’s race in 2010, Oxendine faced stiffer competition for campaign money from big company interests. Still, his gubernatorial campaign received at least $5,500 from executives and top staffers of Blue Cross and its parent, WellPoint in 2009, just as Oxendine was getting revved up for the race.

Oxendine wound up raising the most money in the GOP race and led in the polls until shortly before the primary, but he faded to  fourth on election day.

Meanwhile, the campaign account and political action committee of the winner, Gov. Nathan Deal, have received about $40,000 from Blue Cross and its executives since then.

Oxendine’s connections to Blue Cross aren’t just political:  he married a Blue Cross regional sales executive in 2003.

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