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Blue Cross Blue Shield North Dakota goes with ‘proven entity’ for new CEO

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FARGO — When it came to choosing a new CEO, the board of directors for the state’s top health insurer decided to go with what they know.

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Tim Huckle was named the new president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Dakota on Monday, following the firing of Paul von Ebers in May. Huckle, the company’s chief operating officer, had been serving as interim CEO.

It was a “very logical” decision and the board voted unanimously, said Vice Chairman Dale Klein. Huckle is a North Dakota native and has worked for the ND Blues for nearly 30 years.

“He’s a proven entity,” Klein said Monday.

The Blues had a dismal financial year in 2013, losing nearly $73 million. Of that, $51 million was attributed to subsidiary Noridian Healthcare Solutions, which sustained heavy losses from a contract to build the bungled Maryland health care exchange.

In a Monday interview, Huckle said his rallying cry to employees will be simple: move forward.

“2013 happened. We can recover from 2013,” he said. “We can build financial strength moving forward, and so the message to them is that we can recover and we have a plan in place to do that and that we have board support to do that.”

“The employees have been very receptive to the message and seem to be willing to go along for the ride,” Huckle said.

In 2009, the board took a decidedly different approach to hiring a new CEO after firing Mike Unhjem, who was let go amid public furor over a sales staff trip to a luxury resort in the Grand Cayman Islands.

A nationwide search led the board to hire von Ebers from New York. He had more than 38 years of experience, working with Blue Cross Blue Shield in Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois, Michigan and New York.

This time around, the board spent several months with outside consultants to develop a CEO profile and help internal candidates evolve into that role, Klein said. That process has actually been going on for the past 18 months, he said.

The board wanted someone who could “hit the ground running” after 2013, Klein said, and someone who was well-known and accepted by employees and other administrators.

Huckle, who also served as interim CEO after Unhjem’s firing, fit the profile almost perfectly, Klein said.

A Valley City native, Huckle joined the Blues in 1986 as a work management specialist. He has served as executive vice president of health operations, vice president of development and business strategies and vice president of human resources and development. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of North Dakota.

“Knowing Tim’s longevity with the organization I think speaks towards his staying power,” Klein said. “He’s served multiple CEOs before and proved to be adaptable, proved to be strategic.”

Huckle said he’s not concerned about how the previous two CEOs departed.

“I’ve been here 28 years. I understand how the business works,” he said. “So when I was offered the job, I never hesitated one bit and never thought about what happened with Mike Unhjem or the prior CEO.”

The company declined to say how much Huckle would be paid, saying only that his salary has not yet been approved by the board and that it will be based on CEO salaries for like-sized organizations in the region.

In 2013, von Ebers received compensation totaling almost $573,000, including $371,000 in base salary and more than $200,000 in bonuses. He was not given a severance package.

Huckle was made chief operating officer in 2011, and had oversight of five divisions and more than 500 employees during the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, according to a news release.

A new COO will not be hired. Huckle will continue some of the job’s responsibilities as CEO and will delegate some COO responsibilities to others, said Denise Kolpack, a company spokeswoman.

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Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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