Former North Dakota Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Found Dead

September 15, 2010

Mike Unhjem, a longtime Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota chief executive who was fired last year because of publicity about an employee trip to the Grand Cayman Islands, was found dead at his Fargo home, police said Sept. 13. Unhjem was 57.

Fargo Police Sgt. Carlos Nestler said police were asked to check on Unhjem shortly after 2 p.m. Monday. Nestler said foul play was not suspected in Unhjem’s death, but he could not provide further details.

Unhjem served as CEO for the Fargo company, which is North Dakota’s largest health insurer, from 1991 until March 2009, when he was fired because of controversy about a Caribbean vacation Unhjem had authorized for more than 30 company sales people and guests. Critics said the trip was inappropriate because of Blue Cross Blue Shield’s recent requests for health insurance rate increases.

Unhjem was given a $2.2 million severance payment, which the company’s board of directors said was part of his employment contract. Although Unhjem made “errors in judgment” that damaged Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s image, a board statement said, he also met or exceeded a number of company goals for customer satisfaction and operational efficiency during his tenure.

An attorney, Unhjem began working at Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1986 as a company attorney and vice president. Before that, he was a lawyer and Republican state House member from Jamestown, where he became the youngest North Dakota lawmaker in state history when he was first elected in 1974. He was a student at Jamestown College, less than three months past his 21st birthday.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who sat next to Unhjem in the House chamber when Stenehjem was elected to the House in 1976, said Unhjem served on the House Appropriations Committee for most of his legislative career. “He had a good sense of humor. He was always a pleasure to be around,” Stenehjem said.

“He was very smart. He knew numbers,” Stenehjem said. “He was a very diligent worker, and he understood a lot of things about a lot of issues.”

Unhjem established a consultancy, Unhjem & Associates LLC, in January, according to filings in the North Dakota secretary of state’s office. Its address was listed as Unhjem’s Fargo home.

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