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GARDINER, Maine-State insurance regulators are lucky that Maine Insurance Superintendent Brian Atchinson is used to facing challenges.
Whether it is reviving Maine's collapsing workers compensation market or facing a contested race for president of the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners, Mr. Atchinson has demonstrated an ability to cope with problems that come his way.
The latest test emerged shortly after he was elected NAIC president in December.
Executive Vp David B. Simmons, the organization's top staff member, announced unexpectedly that he wanted new challenges after four years at the helm and tendered his resignation, effective March 15 (BI, Jan. 15).
"You always get thrown a few curveballs," said Mr. Atchinson, who turned 42 last week.
He then responded with his usual balanced approach.
While offering heartfelt praise to Mr. Simmons for his dedicated service, Mr. Atchinson and other officers were quickly working to isolate Mr. Simmons from regulatory policy matters, though Mr. Simmons is still handling management duties. That protects both a job-hunting Mr. Simmons and the NAIC from the appearance of impropriety.
It's "extremely important" to find the right person, Mr. Atchinson said. "The position is a very demanding one. A lot of people look to this person to carry a lot of water."
The NAIC will use "a very open and inclusive process" to find Mr. Simmons' replacement, including a nationwide search, he said. Meanwhile, Washington Counsel Kevin Cronin will oversee regulatory issues and step in as acting executive director after Mr. Simmons leaves.
Mr. Atchinson followed NAIC tradition by moving up to the presidency after having served as vp. His main support came from reformist newcomers, who generally advocate openness and spending limits.
In campaigning, the Maine regulator emphasized his record of leadership as well as his ability to work with all sides on an issue and to forge consensus and mutual understanding.
Long-serving conservatives encouraged Robert Wilcox of Utah to challenge him, though a lack of support caused Mr. Wilcox to withdraw long before the final ballots were cast.
Mr. Atchinson's goals for his one-year term as NAIC president reflect his commitment to broad regulatory concerns.
"Solvency will remain the chief focus of state regulators in 1996, and the NAIC's accreditation program will remain our chief solvency tool," he said. Currently, 47 insurance departments hold that designation.
To become accredited, a state insurance department must adopt what the NAIC considers essential financial regulatory requirements and have adequate personnel and procedures to properly implement them. An independent review team evaluates each department and reports its findings to a subgroup of NAIC regulators, who then vote on whether the designation should be awarded. Subsequent evaluations are periodically required.
Critics fear a focus on results-oriented regulation will allow so much flexibility that the program will become weak and meaningless.
"We are working to ensure that the accreditation program remains strong as it matures," Mr. Atchinson said. He sees the program review launched last year as a way to ensure that the program grows in a "sensible" fashion. The review doesn't stop there.
The NAIC will be streamlining the committee system "to be sure we are not duplicating efforts or wasting precious resources" such as staff and money, Mr. Atchinson said. "I want to be sure committees are accountable, especially in this time of tight finances."
NAIC committees are expected to discuss new issues this year, he said. For instance, state regulators must manage the change presented by the globalization of the insurance industry, said Mr. Atchinson, who previously chaired the NAIC International Insurance Relations Task Force.
"State insurance regulation must become more customer-friendly for those U.S. and non-U.S. (insurance) companies," he said. "Efficient multistate entry (into an insurance market) is key to this effort," as are new technological tools like the producer database that will help update regulatory compliance information.
In addition, Mr. Atchinson said he doesn't "inherently" see an interstate compact as a threat to the NAIC and says is willing to explore the use of such compacts to regulate multistate insurance matters.
As for risk retention groups, he supports "some thoughtful analysis" on their role.
Whatever the issue, "we need to continue to reach out to legislators, governors, and industry and consumer representatives, for they all have interest in the issues with which we are confronted," he said. He pledged that the NAIC will continue to keep them informed.
Already, Mr. Atchinson made significant progress by gaining the support of New York State Sen. Guy Velella, R-Bronx/Westchester, a strong critic of the NAIC's accreditation program. As chairman of the state Senate's Insurance Committee, Sen. Velella bottled up legislation containing additional model law requirements. Blocking that legislation cost the New York Insurance Department its accreditation (BI, March 15, 1993).
Mr. Velella's support stemmed from discussions at two recent meetings, after which he said: "I am very impressed with Superintendent Atchinson. He is a voice of reason among the NAIC leadership and is the first person I have been able to talk to within the organization's leadership who recognizes, understands and appreciates the role of the state Legislature as it relates to the NAIC and its accreditation program.
"This marks an important turning point in the relationship between the NAIC and state legislators."
Mr. Atchinson's rise to national prominence as an insurance regulator is no surprise to those familiar with his background.
He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts before earning a law degree from Syracuse University. He then spent 15 years in the private sector, specializing in legal and marketing work first for a health care facilities company and later for international soccer and baseball concerns, including Olympic committees.
He joined Maine's regulatory ranks in 1989 as general legal counsel to the Maine State Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which oversees the state's Bureau of Insurance. An Independent, he was appointed twice by a Republican governor, once to serve a portion of an unexpired term and then to his own five-year term, which expires in July 1998. A Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed both appointments.
The first challenge he faced as superintendent was a critical one. The state's workers compensation market was collapsing until compensation reform law helped rebuild it (BI, Oct. 26, 1992).
Reforms included establishing an employer mutual insurance company and joint labor/management workers compensation board, deregulating the marketplace and reducing and restricting benefits.
"I certainly believe that Brian Atchinson was instrumental in reviving the workers compensation market," said John Leonard, president and CEO of Maine Employers' Mutual Insurance Co. in Portland, Maine. "He took a prudent and balanced approach toward ensuring the vitality of the market and the interests of employers and employees alike," Mr. Leonard added.
He described the superintendent as a "multidimensional thinker who is "very decisive" yet willing to explain his reasoning.
Proof that the workers comp reforms are working was seen in two subsequent workers comp rate reductions of 3.8% and 12.5%.
However, lingering problems in Maine include disagreements about funding the residual market's deficit (BI, July 17, 1995).
The Alliance of American Insurers filed a lawsuit last month challenging the state pool's plan to require contributions from minor insurers domiciled outside the state, though they did not write workers compensation insurance in Maine. (BI, Dec. 4, 1995).
Despite the lawsuit, Alliance Vp and General Counsel Richard Hefferan said relations with Mr. Atchinson are good. "I find him accommodating and willing to listen and discuss issues, more so than any other NAIC president I can think of," he said.
Workers comp is not the only arena in which the Maine bureau is showing leadership under Mr. Atchinson's direction.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has awarded a $250,000 grant to the Maine Bureau to support the development of 24-hour coverage pilot projects in the state (BI, Jan. 15).
Mr. Atchinson lives in Cumberland, Maine, with his wife, Joan-who is also an attorney-and their two preschool-age children.