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ND Blue Cross Blue Shield execs profited from bogus bonuses

Nearly $15 million in employee bonuses that were almost assured regardless of performance.

Sales reward trips to posh resorts totaling $1.2 million.

A $3.5 million investment in a murky hotel partnership lacking audited financial statements.

All this and much more during just the past five years are among almost half a billion dollars in expenses detailed in a report by state insurance examiners who probed spending practices by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota.

The Forum obtained the 101-page report late last week and studied it in detail over the long holiday weekend.

Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm ordered the "target examination" last March after news reports of a $238,511 reward trip to a Grand Caymans resort for Blue Cross Blue Shield sales leaders sparked public outrage in a time of belt-tightening by most.

The results of the examination, which reviewed expenses from Jan. 1, 2004, to March 31, 2009, for the state's dominant health insurer, come as the nation is embroiled in a debate over health reform and health insurance rates run amok.

The report's bottom line: The lavish expenses for the controversial trip to the sandy Caribbean beaches were symptomatic of a broader culture of extravagant spending by the company that collects almost 90 cents of every $1 in private insurance premiums paid in North Dakota.

Altogether, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota premium payers picked up the tab for $418.3 million in administrative expenses over the five-year period.

As noted by examiners, those expenses are used to determine members' premiums, which have skyrocketed in recent years at double-digit rates along with soaring medical costs.

Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and directors repeatedly have boasted that the company has among the lowest administrative costs in the nation, less than 7 cents of every $1 in premiums.

Notably, however, more than two-thirds of the increase in expenses during the examination period went to employees of Blue Cross Blue Shield as well as its affiliates and subsidiaries, examiners found.

A team of examiners probed a wide array of expenses, including employee compensation, benefits and perks, executive severance packages, travel and charitable spending.