JW Investigates if Gov. Christie’s Effort to Extort $300 Mil from Insurance Co. for Addiction Program is Part of Backdoor Deal with Former Chief of Staff
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wants to force the state’s largest health insurance company to dole out $300 million for a drug addiction treatment program for the poor, an egregious cash grab that media outlets call a “shake down” and “extortion.” Judicial Watch has launched an investigation into the Republican governor’s outrageous targeting of a nonprofit healthcare provider, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, that functions as a tax-paying health services corporation with nearly 4 million policyholders.
Here’s some background before getting into the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request filed by Judicial Watch last week; months ago, Christie launched a peculiar campaign to dig into Horizon’s multi-billion-dollar surplus to fund addiction programs as part of an effort to crack down on the state’s opioid epidemic. The unusual plan has encountered fierce opposition from a multitude of sources, including Democrats and Republicans, not to mention Horizon and the insurance industry in general. Christie has kept pushing, insisting that legislation be introduced to force Horizon to fund his dubious addiction experiment. A local newspaper reported that New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto refuses to support such a measure, calling it a “bad bill.”
The same newspaper article said that “Christie’s push to get some money from Horizon included a news conference on Wednesday to spotlight $15.5 million in citations against Horizon over its Medicaid contract compliance with the state, which the governor says predates his effort to use their surplus. He said the citations show that his proposal, which also includes adding board members and requiring the insurer to post information online, is needed.” However, Christie refused to reveal the citations and when the media tried to obtain them through the Open Public Records Act, the governor’s office asserted that “contractual obligations” prevented the release of the documents. Information involving the mysterious multi-million-dollar fine levied against Horizon is among the records Judicial Watch has requested from the Office of the Governor.
When disclosing the citations didn’t work, Christie threatened to withhold school funding unless state lawmakers pushed through legislation giving him $300 million from Horizon and power to add four political appointees to its board of directors. A local news report said Christie threw “an 11th-hour grenade” into state budget negotiations and called his Horizon cash grab a “raid.” This week a state Senate committee voted to allow the governor to control how much surplus Horizon may keep. “The state could require this extraordinary amount of control because Horizon’s charter would be changed to say it “shall have a charitable mission … to fulfill its obligation as an insurer of last resort in this state,” a local newspaper article states. The Assembly would still have to approve the measure and that seems unlikely according to the speaker’s public comments.
Many wonder what is really driving this issue for Christie. Why is the governor hitting a nonprofit healthcare provider with an excellent rating and modest reserves? Sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation tell Judicial Watch that the real story involves New Jersey insurance magnate George E. Norcross, who is chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital in Camden and owns a piece of AmeriHealth, a small money-losing New Jersey insurer. Norcross is also Executive Chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew, one of the nation’s premier insurance, risk management and employee benefits brokerage and consulting firms. He’s been trying to force Horizon to buy the ailing AmeriHealth firm, sources tell Judicial Watch, but Horizon has refused. Christie’s former chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, works for Norcross at Cooper University Hospital. His official title is senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer. Judicial Watch’s public-records request asks for all communications between Christie, his current chief of staff, Amy Cradic, Norcross and O’Dowd concerning Horizon from June 2016 to date. This includes records regarding, concerning, or related to the following: The activities, operations, and/or management of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Inc; The activities, operations, and/or management of AmeriHealth Insurance Company of New Jersey, Inc; The activities, operations, and/or management of Cooper University Hospital and/or Cooper University Health Care; The activities, operations, and/or management of Conner Strong & Buckelew; The $15.5 million fine recently levied against Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Inc; Any proposed legislative or regulatory changes that would significantly impact Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Inc.’s operations. This includes, but is not limited to, the proposals to alter the composition of the company’s board of directors and to reallocate a portion of the company’s financial reserves for public use.