by Max Brantley
When the Arkansas insurance commissioner weighed the merits of a hospital’s billing complaint against United Healthcare, her interactions with one of the nation’s largest health insurers extended far beyond her department’s hearing room.Benafield was a Huckabee-era insurance commissioner. She moved back into the public sector in the 2014 Republican sweep as chief of staff for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. An appearance of impropriety in her handling of the United Healthcare case was also old news in Arkansas.
During months of deliberations, Commissioner Julie Benafield Bowman met repeatedly with United Healthcare lawyers and lobbyists over lunch and drinks at venues such as the Country Club of Little Rock.
“I had a blast with you Monday night,” Benafield emailed United Healthcare lawyer Bill Woodyard, himself a former state insurance commissioner. “Thank you so much for entertaining us.”
Benafield ultimately decided the case in United Healthcare’s favor — a 2008 ruling that stood to save the company millions of dollars. Nearly two years later, by the time a judge vacated the commissioner’s orders because there was “an appearance of impropriety in the proceedings,” Benafield had moved on: She was working for United Healthcare, having joined at least three of her predecessors representing insurers in Arkansas.
Woodyard is deceased, and Benafield has said her meetings with United Healthcare lobbyists did not influence her decisions as commissioner. United Healthcare has said it did not discuss employment with Benafield until after she had issued her final ruling in the case.