RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina's largest health insurer paid $95,000 to resolve a dispute with the state over 100,000 "robocalls" pushing the company's views on the national health care debate, officials for the state and the company said Thursday.
Attorney General Roy Cooper's office released a settlement agreement with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. The dispute centered on a wave of calls last fall by an outside political consultant, Raleigh-based Campaign Connections.
The agreement said Blue Cross didn't believe it deliberately broke state laws that govern such mass dialings and that any error was technical in nature. But the insurer acknowledged in a separate news release the contractor didn't use a live operator to introduce the calls, which was required.
"We regret this mistake, and we apologize for the error in how these calls were placed," said Blue Cross executive vice president Maureen O'Connor, who signed the agreement that was finalized late Wednesday. "We continue to believe it is important for (Blue Cross) to take an active role in the health reform debate."
Brad Crone, the founder of Campaign Connections, declined to comment, citing what he called a confidentiality provision in his contract with Blue Cross.
The calls, made on two days in October, alerted listeners to an upcoming mailer telling recipients to sign a postcard urging Sen. Kay Hagan to oppose government-run health insurance.
People complained to Cooper's office, which argued Blue Cross had to follow the state's robocall laws because it's not a tax-exempt organization. In addition to the live operator, robocalls must clearly state who's calling and the nature of the call and provide contact information.
"No one in North Carolina should have to endure unwanted robo calls that tie up phone lines and disturb their peace and quiet," Cooper said Thursday in a prepared statement. "People have had enough of answering their phones and hearing a recorded message."
More than 20 state lawmakers and state Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin asked Cooper to investigate. A state attorney said some calls linked to the company appeared to have violated the law. Cooper's office requested Nov. 9 that the calls stop.
Blue Cross, with 3.7 million customers in North Carolina, is a unique not-for-profit private corporation that pays taxes but benefited from a tax-preferred status for decades until the 1980s.
The company has criticized a government health plan considered in the House and Senate that would compete with the insurance industry and impose new taxes to help expand coverage. Blue cross put together a Web site to promote its views.
The automated calls aggravated supporters of Democratic-led legislation. The calls were more offensive because they were paid using company revenues, which include patient premiums, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who spearheaded legislative complaints to Cooper.
"I appreciate the attorney general's diligence on this and think it is an appropriate settlement," Harrison said.
Blue Cross has said it was appropriate to use company revenues because the calls and mailers were primarily educational and didn't focus on specific legislation.
The $95,000 penalty, paid Wednesday, will go to the public schools, according to the settlement. The agreement also requires the company to create written guidelines for its employees and vendors to ensure they comply with the robocall rules.