BREAKING: Insurance pioneer Rooney dies

J.K. Wall
September 15, 2008
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J. Patrick Rooney, an Indianapolis insurance executive who championed health savings accounts and school vouchers, has died. He was 80.

Rooney, the former CEO of Golden Rule Insurance Co., was found dead this morning, according to his long-time personal attorney John Sullivan. Rooney apparently died in his sleep, Sullivan said.

Until shortly before his death, Rooney was active pushing for public school reforms and running a not-for-profit that challenged hospital bills for uninsured patients.

"Pat was an innovator," Sullivan said. "He pushed through medical savings accounts, which are now health savings accounts. He worked tirelessly for the uninsured and the underinsured. And for charter schools."

Sullivan recalled that when Rooney was on the road selling insurance in the late-'40s and early-'50s, he at times ate only one meal day - pancakes - because that's all he could afford.

Indiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Atterholt recalled first meeting Rooney in Washington, D.C. Atterholt was then a young congressional staff member, and Rooney was lobbying for health savings accounts.

"I remember being awed by his revolutionary ideas," Atterholt wrote in an e-mail. "Pat was a giant in the insurance industry and he was a giant of a good person."

Rooney built Golden Rule into a powerhouse in the individual insurance business. And then he built a reputation as a generous giver, Sullivan said.

He was particularly generous in his political giving, doling out large sums to Washington lawmakers. He became particularly well known among conservative Congressional Republicans in Washington as he pushed them to allow and then give tax breaks for health savings accounts.

But the "conservative" label fit Rooney a bit awkwardly. For 25 years, Rooney, who was white, attended a black Catholic church called Holy Angels. He was for a time a contributor to the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. He was a vegetarian who avoided products that require the killing of animals; that's why he wore plastic shoes.

In 1991, Rooney started The Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust, which provides tuition assistance for inner-city students from lower-income families in Indianapolis whose parents want them to attend a private school.

Rooney retired as chairman of Golden Rule in 1996; seven years later, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group acquired Golden Rule for $500 million in cash.

In 1998, Rooney founded the Fairness Foundation, which advocates for uninsured hospital patients who claim they have been charged or pursued for payments beyond their means.

In March, Rooney cited his faith as his motivator for his work, particularly his efforts on school vouchers and the uninsured.

"The reason for the activity is entirely spiritual," Rooney wrote in an e-mail. "When I die, I would like God to welcome me."

For more on Rooney, click here.

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