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Insurance commissioners are typically among the least-known, least-publicized officials in state government. Last month, one commissioner found a way to make news: Without warning, he resigned.
David Black (pictured, right) had only served as director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance for 10 months before he announced his resignation in an email to colleagues on Dec. 28. Black’s e-mail offered little explanation for the timing of his announcement.
“After reflection,” he wrote, “I decided last week it would be best for me to resign as Director of the Agency.”
Black has yet to give a more thorough account, and the state government hasn’t provided any answers, either. The suddenness of Black’s departure and the silence that followed have left the curious to speculate on what led to his decision. Local observers are quick to point out that Black’s agency had become embroiled in controversy in the weeks prior to his exit.
In March, Black was among 12 panelists tasked with determining how the state would implement a health insurance exchange, a crucial aspect of federal health care reform. The panel was supposed to be an independent body studying whether South Carolina’s exchanges should be established by federal or state officials. But the independence of the panel and its findings have been severely undermined.
A Dec. 14 report in the Charleston Post and Courier found that Gov. Nikki Haley and her staff attempted to dictate the panel’s findings before the group even met. In an e-mail to a committee member who wrote much of the panel’s final report, Haley (pictured, right) wrote, “The whole point of this commission should be to figure out how to opt out and how to avoid a federal takeover, NOT create a state exchange.” Haley’s influence over the group – which ultimately followed her orders, recommending that the state not create its own exchange – looked even more suspicious because the governor’s office failed to disclose the e-mails after a request from the Post and Courier. The messages only surfaced when the paper made a separate records request to another state agency.
Following the story’s publication, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General, asking for an investigation into whether Haley’s administration had misused part of the $1 million federal grant used to fund the panel.
“Spending taxpayer funds to construct an ideologically-motivated façade not only violates Congress’s intent, but also the public’s trust in government,” Harkin wrote.
Only a week after Harkin’s letter, David Black resigned his post. Black told Cynthia Williams, another participant on the insurance panel, that he had not received instructions from Haley and had tried to do his job in an honorable way. But, as Williams said at the time of Black’s resignation, the publishing of Haley’s e-mails had “cast a pall over the whole thing.”
Black’s brief tenure in South Carolina government is a powerful lesson in the value of an independent insurance commissioner, and what happens when that independence is tarnished by political influence.