I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Posts Tagged Jerome Block Jr.
In the wake of Public Regulation Commission member Jerome Block Jr.’s resignation, a new report says that the problems afflicting the state regulator go deeper than any one individual.
House Speaker Ben Luján named the members of a subcommittee of the House Rules Committee to investigate allegations against PRC Commissioner Jerome Block, Jr., and whether to recommend impeachment for the full House by the end of the special session.
Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block, Jr. has struggled to pay more than $2,000 in debts over the past year, including one to a fellow commissioner and another to a youth group on whose board of directors he sits. Those debts are just the latest headache for Block, who said he has already paid $400,000 in legal fees to defend himself against criminal charges stemming his handling of public campaign funds.
New Mexico is getting a federal grant to help beef up consumer protection efforts. The money will be used to help consumers file complaints and to appeal insurance company decisions, track and analyze trends in those complaints, and to fund a full-time staff position to assist consumers who are seeking health insurance coverage,
Legislators have drafted a constitutional amendment and companion legislation that would abolish the controversial Public Regulation Commission (PRC), New Mexico’s most powerful regulatory agency. The move came as a surprise to commissioners.
A contentious all-day hearing Wednesday left many Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico customers saying they see little hope for relief from a controversial 21.3 percent increase in their health insurance premiums. Even though the company’s cash reserves have now reached $7.2 billion, an expert witness for the Attorney General’s office’s, who reiterated earlier testimony that Blue Cross had not sufficiently documented its claimed cost figures, and whose analysis found the insurer’s rate filing had exaggerated company losses, said the 21 percent increase was “reasonable, given the circumstances.”
The Public Regulation Commission (PRC) might not issue a record $850,000 fine or order a fraud audit of a Las Cruces water utility’s finances despite protests from some of its staff. The difference of opinion emerged during a PRC hearing Tuesday.
“This paves the way for the public vetting of the factors underlying the rate increase,” Public Regulation Commission (PRC) Commissioner Jason Marks told The Independent at the Supreme Court. “The public can’t help but benefit from hearings.”
After hearing oral arguments from Blue Cross attorney Paul Bardacke, Attorney General Gary King and Insurance Division attorney David Barton, justices retired to chambers for approximately 25 minutes Wednesday morning. They briefly emerged for Justice Petra Jimenez Maes to announce the court was denying the company’s petition.
Insurers should not be subject to repeated hearings after a rate hike has been approved by the insurance superintendent, Bardacke argued.
“Where is the finality for consumers, first of all?” he asked in oral arguments before the court.
But the Supreme Court was not the appropriate venue for the case, Maes stated Wednesday morning, echoing Barton’s oral argument that the high court’s intervention would only be appropriate if Blue Cross had no other recourse to appeal the Division’s decision. Under state law, Blue Cross can appeal a withdrawal of any rate hike approval in district court.
“We respect the finding of the Court and will be at the hearing August 25,” Bardacke, who represents Blue Cross Blue Shield NM, told The Independent. “We were pleased Attorney General Gary King indicated the (rate hike) settlement was fair and equitable, and in the best interest of all New Mexicans.”
The Attorney General’s office had helped negotiate and stood by the controversial rate hike settlement, but Gary King appeared before the Supreme Court to defend the Insurance Superintendent’s authority to hold public hearings and review the justification for the rate hike.
The Insurance Superintendent has discretion under state law to hold the scheduled hearings, Gary King argued.
“A final order reversing approval would not be discretionary,” Gary King clarified to The Independent after the Court’s decision. “There would have to be some reason for rejecting the rate increase. There would have to be some different or additional evidence presented at the hearing” to reverse the rate hike approval.
“It’s a new day for consumers in New Mexico,” PRC chair David King told The Independent, adding that Legislature should now empower the PRC to hear appeals of future rate hikes. Currently, appeals must be filed in district court.
“I’m happy New Mexicans will get a chance for new hearings and we’ll do things now that should have been done orginally,” PRC Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. said. “Hopefully the surpluses prove that the rate increases are not justified and New Mexicans can be spared this increase. They have a lot of nerve to come ask for an increase, frankly.”
Susana Martinez has made corruption a major theme of her campaign for governor, linking high-profile scandals to the “Richardson-Denish administration.” Is linking Denish to the scandals that have rocked New Mexico Democrats, and Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, a fair reflection of the facts? Two political science professors say no. But planting seeds of doubt about an opponent is a longstanding tradition of political gamesmanship during elections, when campaigns fight over who controls the election-year narrative.
As New Mexico officials prepare to increase oversight of health insurance rates—with one eye on an influx of federal cash and the other on impending health care reform rules—members of the Public Regulation Commission are already struggling with public pressure to crack down on rapidly rising rates. Now PRC Commissioner Jason Marks says state law should be strengthened to require the Insurance Superintendent to reject unreasonable premium rate requests.
PNM filed a request last week for approval of another 21.2 percent hike that would take effect in April 2011. But two PRC commissioners said Tuesday they would not be open to accepting a rate hike settlement before next year. The Commission’s go-slow approach with PNM contrasts with the Insurance Division’s rushed weekend deal with Blue Cross Blue Shield—before public hearings on that company’s request.
“Unless he does something, it’s his to lose,” King, District 2′s…
The hotly contested Democratic primary for Public Regulation Commission (PRC) District 4 Commissioner Carol Sloan’s seat was won convincingly by the only woman and Native American in the race, Theresa Becenti-Aguilar.
With 35.8 percent of the Democratic primary vote,…
The PRC regulates the state’s electrical, natural gas, and water utilities, insurance industry, and administers…
New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) commissioners Thursday morning unanimously directed Interim Insurance Superintendent Thomas Rushton to rescind the Insurance Division’s controversial approval of a 21.3 percent hike in the health insurance rates for individual policyholders of Blue Cross Blue Shield N.M.
Rushton announced that he had recused himself from further involvement in the case.
“We do support Mr. Rushton’s recusal from a hearing on the matter,” Sisneros said. “(But) our position is still in support of the settlement. Remember, our agency is not the policy making authority on this issue and in fact, we were asked to step in to help find a resolution. We are happy to continue in that advisory role in the future.”
Rushton appeared reluctant to rescind the Insurance Division’s April approval of the rate hike, telling commissioners that rate change review procedures had been followed.
“There was a hearing conducted,” Rushton said. “There was prefiled testimony. There was discovery. There was a settlement reached, and Morris Chavez accepted that stipulated settlement.”
PRC Chairman David King interrupted Rushton to say that there were outside interests that had not been heard in the rate hike settlement process.
“We’ve had death threats to the Commission, to staff, and the former superintendent (Chavez),” King said. “They certainly followed the law, but it wasn’t done as well as in California,” where a Blue Cross rate hike was recently overturned.
Rushton assigned Deputy Insurance Superintendent Darlene Gomez to be the hearing officer for the reconsideration of the settlement approval. Gomez will receive whatever staffing assistance she needs from the Commission, King pledged.
But the Insurance Division will work under close Commission scrutiny, King said. King said the Commission will also ask for a third-party independent audit of Blue Cross Blue Shield NM’s financial records.
Marks and Block appeared to try to manage policyholders’ expectations, Thursday.
“I don’t want false hope here,” Marks said. “It’s only right to do what we can. But we don’t want false hope. There’s still a stipulated settlement.”
Block said Blue Cross Blue Shield was starting “from scratch,” as far as he was concerned.
But he cautioned that the company would not take the Commission’s decision lightly, and warned policyholders that the extra scrutiny could backfire on consumers.
“They’re going to come out swinging,” Block said. “There could be (financial) data that justifies a higher increase. I hope the public is ready to face that outcome if it’s substantially different.”
Switching interim superintendents?
Marks also floated the possibility of replacing Rushton as interim superintendent with former insurance superintendent Don Letherer, noting that Rushton is very busy.
“Don could keep the wheels on,” Marks said. “We’d have twice the assurance the job’s getting done.”
Commissioners agreed to add a meeting with Letherer to next week’s Commission agenda.
State Insurance Superintendent Morris Chavez resigned Tuesday morning, following intense criticism for his approval last month of a 21.3 percent rate increase for Blue Cross Blue Shield New Mexico individual policyholders without any public hearings.
But last month’s contentious rate hike was nothing new.
The state Public Regulation Commission (PRC)’s Insurance Division has approved rate increases for Blue Cross Blue Shield individual health insurance policies every year since 2004, according to state Insurance Division documents obtained by The Independent.
The Independent sought comment from Chavez Tuesday morning, only to learn staff was scrambling to announce his resignation.
In several cases, the rate hikes were comparable to this year’s increase, exceeding 20 percent.
Cumulatively, the increases approved each year since 2004 have pushed up premiums for Blue Cross Blue Shield NM policyholders by as much as 154 percent, Insurance Division records show.
In 2009 alone, rate increases for the company’s Blue Choice and Blue Choice Plus policies increased 19.6 percent and 24 percent, respectively. The company’s NM Major Medical policies saw a 2009 rate increase of 24.7 percent and Number One policy rates increased 22 percent in 2009.
The financial impact of rate increases on policyholders can be profound, policyholders told The Independent.
Moya Melody and her husband Kim Radsliff, Santa Fe residents, now spend 30 percent of their income on their Blue Cross Blue Shield NM policy, Melody said.
Last month’s rate increase brought their montly premiums up to $1,305 a month, Melody said. When they first bought their Blue Cross Blue Shield NM policy in 2004, they paid $562, or 16 percent of their household income, Melody said.
Two PRC commissioners want more transparency
Health insurance rate increases have not been contested before in New Mexico, PRC Commissioner Jason Marks told The Independent.
“The only insurance rate increase appealed … in the past decade was an appeal two years ago over title insurance,” Marks said.
PRC Commissioners knew about the 20 percent Blue Cross rate increase in 2009, but had not been aware that the Insurance Division had routinely approved rate increases since 2004, Marks said.
“We knew about the 20 percent (Blue Cross) rate increase last year, but this 150 percent increase (since 2004) is news to me,” Marks said.
In the future, health insurance rate increases exceeding 10 percent should trigger public hearings and full Commission review, Marks said.
Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. agreed.
“It’s unfortunate the Insurance Division has treated rate increases as a routine or typical process,” Block told The Independent. “These aren’t typical times. New Mexicans are struggling. I’d like to see the 10 percent threshold serve as a red flag for public hearings and Commission review.”
The Commission also needs to investigate why Blue Cross Blue Shield NM is the only individual health insurance provider in much of rural New Mexico, Marks said.
Blue Cross Blue Shield NM spokeswoman Becky Kenny did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the rate increases. Nor did Kenny respond to requests for information regarding executive salaries.
Kenny refused to disclose the Blue Cross Blue Shield NM’s tax filings, and would not say whether or not the not-for-profit would provide tax filings to policyholders. Blue Cross Blue Shield NM is a division of Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), a mutual insurance company that is owned by its customers. Profits must be reinvested in the business or given to customers.
HCSC’s chief executive officer was paid $10.6 million in salary and bonuses in 2008, according to documents filed with the Insurance Division by Consumers Union attorney Sondra Roberto.
Criminal charges against one Public Regulation Commission (PRC) commissioner, the conviction earlier this month of another on two felony charges, a costly sexual harassment lawsuit, the hiring of a convicted embezzler, and repeated violations of the Open Meetings Act…
As 2009 staggers into the history books, exhausted and a bit lighter in the pockets than when it first appeared on the scene, let’s acknowledge this: the year gave us plenty to write about.
Accusations of pay-to-play, former elected officials getting indicted, electoral surprises and an occasional David toppling a Goliath — 2009 produced it all, giving the year a healthy luster of newsworthiness despite its threadbare look.
The year showed incredible stamina, in fact, with a steady drumbeat of scoops, gotchas and revelations, exhausting many a political junkie and news professional. And 2009 didn’t take long to demonstrate its capacity to shock.
On the fourth day of 2009, an announcement in Washington landed in New Mexico with all the percussive power of a bombshell: Gov. Bill Richardson was withdrawing as President Obama’s commerce secretary, citing a federal corruption investigation into how his administration conducted business.
And the news kept coming.
Some 360 later, the year is ending the way it began — scrutiny, including from federal prosecutors, on how the state invested its money over the past half decade.
In between those two bookends, the state of New Mexico also came to the disturbing realization that it was broke, Albuquerque’s longtime mayor fell short of winning a third four-year term — knocked off by a long-shot two-term GOP state lawmaker — and two former elected officials found themselves on the business end of a criminal indictment.
It’s unclear whether what transpired this year will change the political dynamic here in New Mexico, or lead to more government transparency. But before The New Mexico Independent gets back into the daily grind, let’s take a deep breath and reflect on the busy year that was.
The SFReeper’s Dave Maass is reporting that San Miguel County Clerk Paul Maez received immunity into the investigation of possible embezzlement by Public Regulations Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. Maass cites court papers filed August 4.
Earlier this month, a send-off party held for Manny Aragon, the prison-bound former president of the New Mexico Senate, created controversy. Now, a golf tournament is being held to raise money for the legal defense of former Public…