BLOOMINGTON (AP) -- Mary Brainerd is trying to stay upbeat as she wages a high-profile battle with Minnesota's attorney general over governance of the state's second-largest health maintenance organization.
Attorney General Mike Hatch says an audit of the HMO turned up questionable practices and evidence of a weak board that needs stronger leadership and oversight. He wants to replace a couple of board members with people of his own choosing. And the attorney general has taken the issue to court.
Brainerd, chief executive officer of HealthPartners, contends the nonprofit is mending its ways and doesn't need or appreciate Hatch's interference.
Her tough stance has won her many admirers. But she'd rather just get back to running her company.
Brainerd said she would rather focus on what she sees as the more critical issues of improving health care practices and keeping costs down, making HealthPartners more attentive to patients, and to offer better and more timely care.
"I'm a relentless optimist," she said. "We have the opportunity to make some breakthrough changes," she said.
"She has been cool under fire, and a stabilizing influence in troubled times for her company," said Bob Senkler, chief executive of Minnesota Life, who sides squarely with Brainerd. "She hasn't been drawn down into the fray."
But Hatch remains puzzled at Brainerd's resistance.
"You'd think they would want to get this all behind them," he said.
Brainerd believes HealthPartners is perfectly capable of doing that without Hatch's help.
Less than a year after Brainerd took the top job at HealthPartners, the HMO was hit with a highly critical audit by Hatch's office. It exposed lavish perks for executives and board members, questionable executive compensation methods, cozy relationships with consultants, and travel that was luxurious or unnecessary and sometimes both.
At first, Brainerd's response was conciliatory. She acknowledged the company's errors and promised that changes had been made or were in the works.
But when Hatch suggested that Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor be installed as chairman of HealthPartners' board of directors, Brainerd drew the line. Hatch later proposed a second person for the board as well.
The battle has generated unwanted publicity for HealthPartners, and has been a distraction for its board and management. The company has been deluged with calls, e-mails and letters from clients, patients and members. Brainerd and her staff have spent uncounted hours discussing the situation with HealthPartners' 9,000 employees.
"It's been a trying time for our organization," Brainerd said.
Earlier this month, a New York credit analyst issued a report citing the conflict as reason to put HealthPartners on a credit watch. If its risk rating is eventually downgraded, HealthPartners could find it harder and more expensive to get financing.
"Whenever a company needs to focus on an outside issue, they have a problem sticking to their day-to-day operations," said Joseph Marinucci, a credit analyst with Standard & Poor's, which issued the credit watch. "... It will do them no good to publicly battle with the attorney general."
Brainerd's skills as a communicator serve her and her company well in such a highly public battle, said Duane Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a statewide business trade group of which Brainerd is a member.
"She's in a class by herself as a communicator," Benson said. "She can take complex health care issues that are hard to put your arms around and make it understandable -- with patience and grace."
Benson argues that most problems cited in Hatch's audit didn't occur while Brainerd was CEO.
"By and large, the hand was dealt to her -- and she has played it well," he said.
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