Weatherford Leaves Standard of Service Legacy
During her brief administration, Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner Cathy Weatherford set high standards for the Oklahoma Insurance Department, emphasizing service to policy holders and consumer education.
Appointed in October 1991 by Gov. David Walters to fulfill the unexpired term of Gerald Grimes, who retired, Weatherford's 14 years of prior experience on the department staff allowed her to dive immediately into the business at hand.
"The thing that struck me was the awesome responsibility you have upon taking the job _ I had maybe never seen the weight of that on the shoulders of my predecessor," she said. "You serve on about 10 different boards and commissions of state government, and the responsibility of being a member on so many important boards of state government was something I probably didn't realize until I got here."
Weatherford was executive assistant to newly elected Gov. David Walters less than a year before he appointed her to the commissioner post. For 14 years prior to that, she worked in almost every division of the insurance department, including five years as assistant commissioner.
"Where I think my knowledge was short was probably in the financial regulatory aspect, and monitoring the solvency of insurance companies," Weatherford said. "I spent a lot of time doing my homework there and trying to become a lot more adept at financial analysis of insurance companies."
Early on, she set a goal of making Oklahoma's insurance department one of the first 25 among the 50 states to be accredited by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. "We worked so hard and so diligently, and so many hours and weekends _ it was a very, very intense and lengthy process and we became the 23rd state accredited, so I feel that's a very significant accomplishment that we made during the time I've been commissioner," she said.
The accreditation program encompasses over 20 laws, rules and regulations. An association review team evaluates the experience of the department staff and the procedures used to analyze annual statements and financial reports of insurance companies. The team also reviews procedures used in on-site audits of insurance companies.
"Commissioner Grimes put an emphasis on monitoring for solvency, so Oklahoma has a pretty good record when it comes to monitoring the strength of your insurance companies, and accreditation just put us in a much higher level than we were," Weatherford said.
Next to accreditation, Weatherford placed a three-fold emphasis on education, from consumers to regulatory staff to insurance agents' continuing education. "We have taken advantage of numerous professional seminars and educational programs through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners," she said. "We've put on ongoing seminars here in the department and have done the Quality Oklahoma program."
Beyond professional development of department staff members, however, Weatherford plowed new ground by instigating a weekly newspaper column that is published by more than 40 newspapers around the state. Column topics are drawn from most frequent questions by callers to the department and written "in lay terms _ not technical jargon."
The significance of that column really hit home when Weatherford received a copy of a letter to the editor of a small northeastern Oklahoma newspaper from a woman who had read a column dealing with mandatory health insurance coverage of mammograms for women.
"She went and found out she had breast cancer. Literally, that newspaper column saved her life," Weatherford said. "That's kind of one of the things that I look to and remember when the heat's high and my shoulders droop. I remember that's the reason I'm here, and it makes it all worthwhile."
Besides discussing what her stint as commissioner has been like, Weatherford was asked to describe the challenges that the incoming commissioner will face in January.
"The candidates in the race all come from the insurance industry, and your responsibility goes way beyond regulating insurance," she said. The insurance commissioner regulates the bail bond business, serves as chairman of the Oklahoma Real Estate Appraisal Board, oversees prepaid funeral benefit plans and conducts utilization review of health care providers.
"What I hear from my counterparts on the national level is that they know the insurance industry very well but they don't know anything about insurance regulation," she said. The new commissioner "will have to go into a strong learning curve immediately to learn about insurance regulation, all the different laws, rules and regulations," Weatherford said. "And additionally, you're coming from private industry and you have to learn all the governmental rules, regulations and constraints put on you as you become a public servant."
Weatherford reluctantly decided not to run for election because her husband, Steve, this year accepted the position of regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Fort Worth. With a toddler and two other daughters, the distance was simply too great.
Had Fort Worth not entered the picture, however, she "definitely" would have run.
"It just wasn't working, especially when I knew I was going to have to be on the campaign trail five and six days a week and he was going to be in Texas five nights a week," she said. "I just did not feel that was going to be fair to my children."
Because insurance rates continue to rise, people are constantly looking for cheap insurance, and she said "Oklahoma is like many other states _ we've had problems with unauthorized insurers. The most vivid one I can remember is `God's Insurance,' " which she worked with the district attorney to shut down.
"The frightening thing about this is, those types of people come in and sell and we don't know who they are or have any idea what they're doing until someone has a claim and they call us and say, `I can't find these people,' " she said. "It's going to be a challenge to continue to figure out ways to discover these people and stop them from engaging in the business of insurance."
For a number of years it's been proposed that insurance be federally regulated. Weatherford said after a lot of thought, she opposes the idea. "I think you have to have somebody in Oklahoma to go to, that you don't have to track down a 1-800 number in Washington, D.C., to get hold of your insurance commissioner to get help or answers," she said.
"I think it helps having a state regulator who knows the local insurance industry and knows the local economies. And ultimately, even though insurance is regulated on a state-by-state basis, I think it's pretty uniform across the nation, and the nuances and variances in regulation are as a result of the demographics of the state."
Health care reform stands to impose major changes in the insurance industry, something Weatherford is acutely aware of and a major motivation to stay current with the health care debate, she said.
The insurance commissioner also chairs the State Board for Property and Casualty Rates, whose responsibilities include ruling on requests for workers compensation rates. Even though the commissioner has no authority over selfinsured associations or the State Insurance Fund _ the state's largest workers compensation insurer, which sets its rates independently _ Weatherford said the commissioner still is considered a key player in the ratemaking process.
"You have to stay abreast of the reforms and you have to take a stand, and you have to look at your data and watch your trends," she said.
The job hasn't been without its attacks, both personal and legal, but Weatherford will miss it. "I've come to realize that I think those (criticisms) come to people who really do things right, as opposed to not doing the job," she said. "We have removed people from the industry that should not be there, we have taken people's licenses, we have filed charges and gotten convictions. Maybe we did our job too well."…