P.J. Mills, a former state legislator who led rescue of Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1990s, is dead at 87

Percy Joseph Mills Jr., better known as P.J. to his many friends during 30 years in high level jobs in business and politics in Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, died Saturday in New Orleans. He was 87 and had been ill with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Mills represented Shreveport as one of the Young Turks who reformed the Louisiana House during Gov. John McKeithen’s final term in office from 1968-72.

He served as chief of staff to then-Gov. Buddy Roemer 20 years later.

And when Blue Cross Blue Shield Louisiana suffered financial woes in the 1990s, Mills became its chief executive officer and steered the giant health insurance company back to financial stability.

“P.J. was bright, he worked hard, he was ambitious, and he wanted to do a good job. And he did all of those things over the long haul,” said E.L. “Bubba” Henry, a fellow Young Turk with Mills in the state House who went on to become speaker of the House and a lobbyist for the insurance industry. “He was easy to like. He was good to be with and good to work with.”

Mills grew up in Baton Rouge, graduated from LSU and moved to Shreveport where he worked for the local chamber of commerce and then became a banker. He was elected to the state House in 1967.

After Mills, Henry and a batch of other freshmen legislators arrived to Baton Rouge, they were appalled at how senior lawmakers and lobbyists controlled the passage of legislation, giving them little say.

By the end of their term, lobbyists, who had often voted for members when they were away from their desks, were banned from the floor. Committee hearings now could be held only with prior notice. Legislators were allowed to hire staff and were given access to the state budget and could offer changes to it.

In 1971, Mills ran to be lieutenant governor but finished fourth. In 1975, he ran to be secretary of state but finished second to Paul Hardy.

Afterward, Mills moved to New Orleans and joined an insurance firm.

Roemer brought him back to politics and Baton Rouge by asking him to be his chief aide in 1989.

At the time, Roemer was adrift, having just lost a major statewide tax initiative.

“He came along when Buddy really needed him,” said Billy Rimes, who also became a Roemer aide. “P.J. bailed that ship out.”

When Mills left his fourth floor office in the State Capitol to testify before a legislative committee, he moved at an unhurried pace through the ground floor hallways, stopping to talk with anyone who wanted to chat, dispensing warm words and good advice.

“P.J. taught me not to carry a chip on my shoulder if a legislator slapped me around a bit,” Rimes said. “He taught me that was just part of the process.”

After Roemer lost the 1991 governor’s race, then-Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown asked Mills to assist auditors in reviewing the books of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Mills and the auditors found serious financial problems that prompted Brown to have the state take over the company in 1993 and insist that the board and senior leadership of Blue Cross step down. With Brown’s backing, the new board named Mills to take over.

By the time Mills stepped down in 2000, Blue Cross had gone from 750,000 customers to 2 million, according to the company.

“The foundation he laid in cleaning up the mess is one of the main reasons Blue Cross is in such solid shape today,” Brown said.

Survivors include Jennie, his wife of 62 years; six children and 11 grandchildren.

The family has delayed funeral arrangements because of the Covid-19 restrictions but has asked friends to consider a donation to Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, his alma mater.

Mills spent the past three years under the care of the Chateau de Notre Dame “Earth Angels.”

Jennie said she and one of their daughters were with Mills at the end, staying upbeat by talking about having sandwiches and champagne for the couple’s upcoming 63rd wedding anniversary.

“He couldn’t talk nor could he open his eyes, but he made us aware he was hearing us by squeezing our hands,” Jennie said.

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