A business-friendly approach: New insurance boss hopes to speed approval process, attract firms to state

Jim Atterholt may not have been the governor’s top choice to lead the Indiana Department of Insurance. But the former state representative who has dedicated his career to public service is no consolation pick, either.

Those who know the 43-year-old Atterholt say his calm demeanor and his sharp people skills should serve him well in his new role as an administrator. He took the helm as commissioner Feb. 22, about a month after Harold Calloway declined the appointment.

Atterholt since has spent his first three months improving the efficiency of a state agency he felt took too long to act on policies and rates that insurance companies submit for approval.

“We had some real problems internally in that area,” he said. “Our goal is no more than 30 days. It was taking 30 days to six months, and that’s clearly unacceptable.”

While providing consent is one of the main charges of the department, its scope should broaden under Atterholt. His plan is to become active in economic development issues, essentially to make the state more attractive to insurance companies looking to create jobs.

Sitting in his office on West Washington Street, directly across the street from the Indiana Statehouse, the Fort Wayne native explained his vision for what he wants to accomplish as commissioner. He almost never received the chance, though.

Atterholt had been put in charge of the department’s transition team as incoming Gov. Mitch Daniels began filling key government posts. Although he had expressed interest in the commissioner’s job, Daniels passed him over in favor of Calloway.

Atterholt agreed Jan. 10 to serve as acting commissioner, until Calloway could begin, and prepared to settle in as his deputy chief. After meeting with the Evansville insurance agent, Atterholt felt he could be “very comfortable” working under him.

Roughly a month later, concerned that the job change might cause his family financial duress, Calloway declined the appointment. The commissioner oversees an agency with an annual budget of $7.1 million and is paid $83,400 a year.

The fact Atterholt stepped into the position by default is hardly a reflection on his credentials, said the governor’s chief of staff, Harry Gonso.

“He has the full faith and confidence of the governor,” Gonso said. “We have every reason to believe he will do an excellent job.”

Atterholt’s previous exposure to the insurance industry was limited to various health care issues he encountered while working as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana. But Atterholt views his outsider status as a positive, because he said he better understands the strengths and weaknesses he brings to the table.

For instance, he brought aboard John Kissling, a 36-year insurance veteran, as chief deputy commissioner. Traditionally, the chief deputy would spearhead the department’s legislative agenda. Given their backgrounds, however, Atterholt took over that role while Kissling is focusing on improving the turnaround time for granting approval for rates and policies.

Streamlining business

One of Atterholt’s priorities during the legislative session was to help shepherd the passage of Senate Bill 634, which aligns Indiana with 13 other states supporting an interstate insurance regulation system.

Health insurers such as OneAmerica or Anthem Inc. that do business nationally currently must get separate approval from every state in which they conduct business. The process can take a year and puts insurance companies at a disadvantage when competing with federally governed banks for investment and retirement products. Annuities, for instance, contend with 401(k) plans in the investment market, Atterholt said.

Under the cooperative legislation, insurance companies could get single approval to launch products nationally. At least 26 states have to approve the measure before it becomes legal.

“Jim and the governor both made it clear what their direction is for the department and what they hope to achieve,” said Marjorie Maginn, vice president of industry and political affairs for Anthem and a former insurance commissioner during the O’Bannon administration. “Certainly, helping the insurance industry is foremost on their agenda.”

With the session behind him, Atterholt is free to concentrate on his economic development initiative.

“From here on out, we’re looking at ways to grow insurance jobs,” he said. “The Insurance Department is critical to [companies’] success and growth. We have to have a reputation for excellence … if our economic development efforts in the insurance industry are going to be successful.”

That’s welcome news to the Insurance Institute of Indiana, the trade association that represents the interests of insurance companies.

“One thing that we have been desperately seeking is a department that can play a role in recruiting insurance jobs and companies to Indiana,” said Marty Wood, spokesman for the institute. “That opportunity has been here for some time; there just has not been a focus on it.”

Anthem’s agreement to pay $3 billion as part of its merger with California-based WellPoint Health Networks Inc. should send a powerful signal to the industry that Indiana is a good place to conduct business, Atterholt said.

Speak softly, carry big stick

Atterholt entered public service immediately after earning degrees in political science and history in 1986 from the University of Wisconsin. He migrated to Washington, D.C., to become chief of staff for Burton. There, he met his wife, Brenda, a Russian linguist for the Department of Defense. The two returned to Indiana to start a family, and Atterholt became director of Burton’s 5th District.

He became a politician himself in 1998, when voters of the 86th District in Indianapolis elected him their state representative. He won re-election in 2000 but was defeated by fewer than 50 votes by Democratic challenger David Orentlicher in 2002. Even so, Atterholt declined to demand a recount, although fellow Republicans wanted him to.

His actions are a testament to his character, said John Gregg, former speaker of the House who helped reconfigure the district to make it more favorable for Democrats.

“The fact that he still is my friend speaks volumes of him,” Gregg said. “He realized it was politics and not personal. He’s what you want in public office.”

Following the defeat, Atterholt served a two-year stint as director of government affairs for AT&T Corp.’s Indiana operations before joining the governor’s team.

The large painting in his office of Theodore Roosevelt, hanging among others of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, conveys Atterholt’s fondness for the former president and his famous proverb of, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

“That’s a good motto for the department,” Atterholt said. “We have lots of power, but we have to be very judicious when exercising it.”

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