October 03, 2007
In two terms as Montana's insurance and securities commissioner, John Morrison has learned a thing or two about patience. Through his work at the state auditor's office, Morrison has helped nearly 10,000 people in Montana get affordable health insurance and he's taken big stabs at white-collar crime in the state. As state auditor - also known as the state's securities commissioner - Morrison is also helping protect people like senior citizens from fraudulent securities sales.
John Morrison continues a legacy in Montana politics
Perhaps his biggest gamble in his roughly eight years in Montana politics was making a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by former republican Conrad Burns, a longtime senator who was embroiled in the Jack Abramoff scandal. (Burns was accused of being the lobbyist's largest single benefactor in Congress.) Morrison went on to lose against democrat Jon Tester, who gave Montana Democrats even more power in Congress.
"Most of the things we've accomplished, we've had to take a couple of runs at," said Morrison, who hails from a long line of politicians. His father, Frank Morrison, was a former Montana Supreme Court justice and his grandfather is the former governor of Nebraska. His mother, Sharon Morrison, is a graduate of the University of Montana Law School and is in private practice in Whitefish.
In his tenure as state auditor, Morrison has been an outspoken supporter of affordable health insurance for Montana's families and small businesses, and he was successful in getting legislation passed that took tobacco-tax revenue and made health insurance more affordable for more than 10,000 Montanans. Morrison developed the "Insure Montana" program, which took tobacco tax revenue and funded not only that program, but also CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program).
Montana has nearly 170,000 uninsured people. Between CHIP and Insure Montana, the programs will help provide health insurance to 25,000 people - the largest climb in Montana health coverage since Blue Cross/Blue Shield was started in the 1960s, Morrison said. A former attorney in private practice, Morrison has cracked down on illegal stock trading, as well as pyramid and Ponzi schemes, fake health insurance and phony medical discount cards. He brought a historic settlement in the case involving former Montana gubernatorial candidate Pat Davison and his former firm UBS Paine Webber.
He's had to fight some big names. While interest groups were mostly in favor of taking tobacco tax revenue and using it for health insurance coverage, the only opposition was from tobacco giant Philip Morris. Morrison rallied business, labor, health care providers, teachers, senior citizens and others behind his plan to increase Montana's low tobacco tax and use the money for health care programs: helping small businesses afford health insurance, fully funding CHIP, helping seniors and disabled people afford prescription medicine and increasing payments for health care providers under Medicaid. Morrison worked with the Alliance for Healthy Montana to get his plan on the 2004 ballot. After Montana voters approved Initiative 149 (which increased the cigarette tax by a dollar per pack) the 2005 legislature passed every part of Morrison's plan.
Since Morrison was first elected in 2000, he has transformed the Auditor's office into a juggernaut for progressive reform and a Montana original. Some say no one in state government has accomplished more positive change for this state in the last five years.
If insurance and securities make you yawn, consider yourself normal. But then think again. Insurance takes in a lot of interesting territory: birth and death, illness and injuries, medical care, home ownership and financial security. Now add a dash of securities: scam artists, corrupt stock brokers, phony businesses, pyramid and Ponzi schemes and the brighter side - economic development through capital formation.
Morrison, who chaired a special committee formed to respond to the insurance issues arising from Sept. 11, 2001, says many victims in the towers of the World Trade Center left answering machine messages for their families about their life insurance policies. "In their final moments of life, these people wanted to be sure their families were protected," Morrison says. "Insurance is a promise that folks count on; one of our jobs is to make sure that promise is kept."
He and his staff have recovered more than $30 million for insurance consumers since he started in 2001. The claims spring from every kind of insurance: health, life, auto, homeowners, business, crop/ hail, workers comp and more. (Morrison credits his "awesome" staff for doing the heavy lifting on these issues.)
At the Little People's Academy, a day care in Bozeman, Terri Quitaro's three employees now have health insurance for the first time. One of the employees was able to have her ear drum fixed and now she can hear. She is one of thousands of small business employees across Montana who now have health coverage thanks to Morrison's work on health care reform. "Every person in this country deserves access to quality health care," he says. We're not there yet, but we've covered many thousands of people and we're laying the groundwork for universal coverage."
Morrison began trumpeting the issue in his first campaign, when most politicians wouldn't touch the issue. Less than a year into his first term, Morrison began traveling Montana, holding town meetings with hundreds of Montanans. One in five Montanans have no health coverage, public or private, Morrison said. And most of Montana's uninsured work full time for a business with fewer than 10 employees. The state was not putting enough money into CHIP and was leaving millions of dollars on the table. Seniors lacked medicine they needed. Doctors could not afford to treat low-income patients under Medicaid. Meanwhile, Montana's tobacco tax was one of the lowest in the country and tobacco related disease costs soared.
About 7,000 Montanans are now covered under Insure Montana, a unique combination of refundable tax credits and a state-chartered purchasing pool, that has become a model for other states. Another 3000 children are now covered under CHIP and Big Sky Rx will soon provide cheaper prescription medicines for thousands of Montanans.
Along the way, Morrison and his team saved a Montana health insurer from bankruptcy by taking it over, nursing it back to financial health and finding a new parent company for it, preserving coverage for 15,000 Montanans and a dozen jobs in Kalispell. Morrison also supervises the state's high risk health insurance pool and he created a premium assistance plan that opens the program to hundreds of low-income Montanans with serious illnesses and injuries.
"No one has done more to move the ball forward on health care than John Morrison," says former Montana speaker of the House Gary Mathews. "Thousands of Montanans now have coverage because of his leadership."
These successes weren't easy, especially in the wake of the 2007 Legislature, which during its regular session failed to produce a balanced budget and was marred with partisan bickering.
Sept. 11, 2001, was the largest insurance disaster the world had ever seen. Legal questions begged to be answered and regulators struggled to address how terrorism would be covered in the future. Morrison, then a freshman at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, was picked to chair the emergency task force that responded to the crisis. The group worked for more than a year, keeping terrorism coverage in place for personal insurance (auto, homeowners, health and life) and assisting Congress to create the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. "John is very focused and determined," says Andy Beal, executive vice president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners "He's got courage and he gets things done."
Morrison grew up in Whitefish and graduated from Hellgate High School Missoula. He is on the home stretch of his tenure as state auditor. With his term expiring in 2008, Morrison is eyeing private law practice - something his mother, Sharon Morrison, still maintains in Whitefish. This would continue the legacy of Frank Morrison, who undertook the largest-single lawsuit in Montana history when he brought a lawsuit on behalf of thousands of former Montana Power and Touch America shareholders. Montana Power, the longest running power utility in Montana, was broken up and sold during the dotcom boom as it attempted a transition into Touch America, a telecommunications company. The company tanked and took millions of dollars of stock holder value down the tank. It was a lawsuit that Frank Morrison was passionate about, as it affected retirements and pensions of thousands of Montanans. Morrison died suddenly last year before the suit was settled, though the suit carries on with help of his wife, Sharon.
John Morrison learned his skill of persistence from his parents. Sharon Morrison, a vibrant, tenacious woman, who attended law school at the University of Montana when she was 40.
John Morrison is a bit unsure, still, about what he'll do after his final term as state auditor expires. The Morrison name will go down in Montana history as one of the hardest-working families in Montana.
"I'm not sure what I'll do, but I know I'll work on issues I care about," Morrison said.
- By Jack MacKenzie, with reporting by Dave Reese