Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wildfire season starts today

Today is the official start of wildfire season in Washington state (hat tip to Tom Banse with KUOW). While forecasters expect a “normal” fire season, it’s a good idea for people who live in areas prone to or near areas that are prone to wildfires to take some precautionary steps.

Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources
  • If you live in an area that could be near a wildfire, you should catalog your home’s belongings in case you need to make an insurance claim. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has a printable home inventory checklist or you can try free iPhone/iPad or Android apps.
  • Check your policy to make sure damage from wildfires is covered. Some policies include some coverage for emergency shelter, such as a hotel, if a home is uninhabitable.
  • If you live in an area that’s prone to wildfires, read some tips to prepare and protect your home.
  • Review your policy to make sure you have enough coverage. Things like fine art, jewelry and computer equipment may have limited coverage under a standard policy. But you can buy special coverage that gives you more protection for those types of items, called a rider. Contact your insurance agent or broker to ask about supplemental policies.
  • You can help protect a rural home and limit the danger by clearing a natural fire break between your home and surrounding trees, brush and uncut fields. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has information on how to protect yourself and your home before, during and even after a wildfire.
  • Have an emergency kit and a family communication plan. Know the location of your valuable papers, including insurance policy and contact information, mementos and anything you can't live without, so you can evacuate with them, if needed.
  • Here's a list of recommended emergency supplies to keep on hand in the case of an evacuation.
  • Don’t forget about planning for your pets. Ready.gov has tips for pet owners.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources has the most recent fire information available on its website and through the @waDNR_fire Twitter feed.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Planning for retirement: What is an annuity?

This week is National Plan for Retirement Week. Some people use annuities as part of a retirement strategy because they can provide a steady income after retirement, but they can be confusing.

Annuity basics
An annuity is a contract in which an insurance company agrees to make a series of payments in return for a premium (or premiums) that you have paid. Many consumers buy annuities to have a regular income after they retire. An annuity is an investment and shouldn’t be used to reach a short-term financial goal.

How annuities work
  • You pay either one premium or make payments for a set period of time in exchange for future income.
  • Annuities should increase in value over time and income taxes are deferred until you withdraw dividends. People who withdraw money before age age 59½ can be subject to a 10 percent income tax penalty
  • You can request to receive payments in a lump sum or in periodic fixed amounts.
  • A popular payout option is "lifetime income with 10 years certain." This means the annuity pays a monthly income for the life of the annuitant or for 10 years, whichever is longer.
  • Annuities also pay a death benefit.
There are three types of annuities:
  • Fixed annuities: Your money - minus any applicable charges - earns interest at rates set by the insurer, as specified in the annuity contract.
  • Variable annuities: The insurer invests your money - minus any applicable charges - in a separate account. The company invests your money in stocks, bonds or other investment funds you choose, based upon how much you're willing to risk. If the fund doesn't do well, you may lose some or all of your investment.
  • Equity-indexed annuities: The insurer offers a guaranteed minimum return, plus it offers a variable rate based on the return of a specific index. During the accumulation period, the insurer credits you with a return based on interest earned plus or minus changes in the index, subject to participation rates, caps, charges and other restrictions. The most commonly used index is Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Stock Price Index (S&P 500).
Buying an annuity
Washington state law requires applicants to undergo a suitability analysis before the sale or replacement of any annuity. The analysis includes an evaluation of your financial position, income needs and the cost of liquidating any assets. This can help you determine which annuity is right for you.

As with other major purchases, it’s a good idea to shop around and compare information for similar products from several companies. While you do your research, keep detailed records and get all quotes and key information in writing.

When you are ready to purchase an annuity, carefully review the contract with your agent or broker. Ask for an explanation of anything you don’t understand. Be sure you are aware of all of the terms and conditions such as surrender charges and/or cancellation penalties.

Washington state has a 10-day “free look” period. Washington consumers have 10 days after purchasing an annuity to cancel for a full refund.

Protect yourself
Some insurance agents or brokers use inappropriate sales practices in an attempt to take advantage of uninformed consumers. Red flags include relentless sales pitches that pressure you into buying a product quickly or a deal that seems too good to be true.

The best way to protect yourself is to research the agent and company you’re considering,
More information

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thank you to our SHIBA volunteers!

In honor of National Volunteer Week, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler recognizes more than 400 people across Washington who volunteer their time and effort to help people access health care.

Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors (SHIBA) provide free, unbiased counseling and outreach about Medicare and other health care choices. In 2013, SHIBA volunteers contributed nearly 86,000 hours to helping more than 54,000 citizens, representing $2 million in labor costs.

"During National Volunteer Week, we celebrate the accomplishments of our dedicated volunteers and we recognize their contributions to their communities,” said Kreidler. “Volunteers are an invaluable resource and we appreciate their dedication and support.”

You can find a SHIBA office near you or learn about becoming a SHIBA volunteer.
SHIBA volunteers help sign up people for Medicare this year.

Monday, April 7, 2014

OIC website redesigned for insurers, producers

Today, the Insurance Commissioner launched a redesigned industry user section of our website, the final phase in our website redesign that started in January 2013.

Two new sections—one for producers and one for insurers—enable visitors to navigate more quickly and easily to the information they need. We also improved navigation on mobile devices, updated the Producers and Insurers homepages, and converted our laws and rules page to an A-to-Z format. We worked with industry professionals to help us determine ways to make the site more usable and easy to navigate.

If you have bookmarks to pages that used to be available under the Industry Professionals tab, please update them with links to our new site.

We invite producers and insurers to submit feedback about our redesigned website

View the site at www.insurance.wa.gov.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How do I know if my health plan meets federal requirements?

More than half a million people enrolled for coverage through our state’s exchange, Washington Healthplanfinder, before the 2014 enrollment ended (for most people) on March 31. Now the question consumers are asking is whether their plans meet federal requirements and therefore exempt them from paying the tax penalty for people who lack health insurance. You can read more about the tax penalty and exemptions to it on our March 28 blog post.
The Affordable Care Act requires people to have a plan that includes “minimum essential coverage.” The following types of plans meet that requirement:
  • Employer-sponsored health insurance, including self-insured plans, COBRA and retiree plans.
  • Plans purchased in the individual market, including a qualified health plan offered by Washington Healthplanfinder, our states’ health benefit exchange.
  • Medicare Part A coverage and Medicare Advantage plans.
  • Most Medicaid coverage.
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
  • Certain veterans health plans administered by the Veterans Administration.
  • Most types of TRICARE coverage for member of the military.
  • Coverage provided to Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Coverage under the Nonappropriated Fund Health Benefit Program.
  • Refugee Medical Assistance supported by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.
  • Self-funded health coverage offered to college students for plan or policy years that began on or before Dec. 31, 2014 (for later plan or policy years, sponsors of these programs may apply to HHS to be recognized as minimum essential coverage).
  • State high-risk pools for plans or policy years that began on or before Dec. 31, 2014 (for later plan or policy years, sponsors of these program may apply to HHS to be recognized as minimum essential coverage).
  • Other coverage recognized by the Secretary of HHS as minimum essential coverage.
There are circumstances that allow people to enroll in or change their health plan during 2014, called a special enrollment. Find out if you qualify for a special enrollment.

If you have questions about whether your plan meets the minimum requirements, you can contact our Consumer Advocates at 800-562-6900 or online.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What’s the “individual mandate”?

Our consumer advocates have been getting a lot of questions about the individual mandate, which is the penalty for failing to obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is a federal law. In Washington, the last day to enroll in a health plan is March 31, only four days away.

If you qualify for free or subsidized health care, enroll through Washington Healthplanfinder at www.wahealthplanfinder.org.  People qualify for help if their income is less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,960 for an individual and $94,200 for a family of four in 2013). If your income exceeds that threshold, you may wish to contact an insurance broker or agent directly.

Those who qualify for Washington Apple Health (Medicaid) may continue to enroll throughout the year. There are also certain events that allow you to enroll or change your enrollment throughout the year. Read more about qualifying events.

With a few exceptions, people who do not purchase an ACA-compliant health insurance plan will pay a penalty when they file their 2014 federal income taxes. The penalty is 1 percent of your income or $95, whichever is greater. The penalty increases yearly through 2016, when the penalty will be the greater of 2.5 percent of your household income or $695 per adult and $347 per child. If you lacked coverage for part of the year, your penalty will be prorated.

There are exemptions to the penalty:
  • People who cannot afford coverage because the cost of premiums exceed 8 percent of their household income.
  • People whose household income is below the minimum threshold for filing a tax return.
  • People who are incarcerated.
  • Members of federally recognized tribes.
  • People who are eligible for care through the Indian Health Service.
  • People who live in the United States illegally.
  • People whose religious beliefs prohibit having health insurance and are recognized as such by the Social Security Administration.
  • People who belong to a health care sharing ministry.
  • People who experienced a health insurance coverage gap of fewer than three months.
  • U.S. citizens who live outside of the country for at least 330 days during a 12-month period. However, once they return to the U.S., they need to purchase health insurance within three months.
People must apply for an exemption to the individual mandate through the IRS. The IRS created a section on its website about the mandate, exemptions to it, and how to file.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Balancing consumer protection, innovation is focus of new health insurance rules

Balancing consumer protection with innovation is the focus of the new rules under consideration for new health insurance plans that will be available in 2015.

The Insurance Commissioner’s office has been working on the health insurance network rules for more than four months. The process began soon after the emergence of what are called “narrow networks.” That’s the common reference now to health plans that don’t always include the doctors and hospitals that insurance companies typically contracted with in the past before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act took effect this year.

While still providing access to a full range of medical providers, health insurers have said they have not contracted with some traditional doctors and hospitals because of the higher rates they charge for some services. It’s a key way that insurers have said they can keep premiums lower for consumers and still maintain comparable quality care – especially considering the often wide discrepancies in what providers charge for the same service.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler saw early on that consumers and providers needed more guidance in developing health plans for 2015. The new rules under consideration are heavily focused on providing more transparency – answering the common question: “Is my doctor and hospital in the network of the health plan I might buy?”

“Consumers have a right to know,” Commissioner Kreidler told the members of the Health Benefit Exchange at its monthly public meeting March 27. “It’s my job to ensure that consumers can access the care they need and that insurers live up to their promises.”

That hasn’t been as clear as it should have been through plans offered this year. The new rules are designed to give consumers more information on which to make choices in 2015.
The commissioner has heard from a wide range of interested parties, including insurance companies, doctors, consumer advocates, Indian tribes and more.

A public hearing on the rules is scheduled for April 22 in Olympia. They are set to take effect May 1, about the same time that insurers will begin proposing new plans. Considerable flexibility is built into the new rules to make sure that health plans for 2015 are given time to comply. The fact is, health insurers have been involved in the process for months. And much of what’s being asked for in the rules is already required.

The new rules are simply providing a formal and clearer roadmap for all to follow on behalf of consumers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

If I have a child care business in my home, can my insurer cancel my homeowner policy?

An insurer cannot decline to issue a homeowner policy, cancel or fail to renew a homeowner policy for the sole reason that the customer operates a home-based child care, in accordance with state rules (WAC 284-30-700). However, insurers may exclude liability coverage for any liability that arises related to the child care business. People in Washington who operate home-based child care businesses should talk to an insurance agent or broker about seeking a separate business liability policy to insure themselves and their business in the event of a liability issue. Find a licensed agent or broker.

People who care for children in their homes typically require a license from the Department of Early Learning. Read more on DEL’s website.

People who run other home-based businesses should contact their insurance agent to find out what types of coverage they may need.

Read more about insurance and home-based businesses.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Join the Insurance Commissioner’s consumer protection team!

The Office of the Insurance Commissioner is recruiting to fill a Functional Program Analyst 3 position in the Consumer Protection Division at our Tumwater headquarters. This position supports our mission by advocating on behalf of consumers to ensure fair treatment by insurance companies and by educating the public on insurance matters.

The position researches and resolves consumer complaints involving health, life, annuity & disability (L&D) insurance and licensed carriers and responds to consumer inquiries regarding L&D insurance issues, including questions involving federal health care reform. This position staffs our consumer hotline four hours per day and spends the remaining time researching and resolving consumer complaints and then following up with consumers. Our consumer protection staff work with consumers and insurance professionals and also work heavily in our database, with some website content responsibilities.

In 2013, we received more than 5,000 consumer complaints and recovered more than $8 million related to insurance billings, refunds and various claim-handling issues.

Read more about this position or apply. This job closes on April 6.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Important information about landslide insurance

Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency in Snohomish County after a large landslide hit the town of Oso on March 22. Tragically, at least eight lives were lost and several people were injured. Searches underway for more than 100 people who are still missing. The Office of the Insurance Commissioner’s thoughts are with the families, emergency responders and communities affected by the landslide.

In addition to the human toll, the slide destroyed at least 30 homes and 20 other structures, and caused a backup in the Stillaguamish River, sparking concerns about flooding. The landslide destroyed an area of at least one square mile, including Highway 230 and parts of neighboring Darrington. FEMA announced today it will assist with the landslide response.

People who lost or suffered damage to property as a result of the landslide can contact the Insurance Commissioner’s consumer advocates with questions about their options at 800-562-6900 or online.

In general, homeowner policies do not cover landslides or land movements caused by rain runoff. That type of coverage would be covered by a separate policy. If you think you purchased such a policy—or you would like to–contact your insurance agent or broker.

Read more information about homeowner insurance and landslides.

Gov. Inslee has a webpage with information about the landslide and the state Emergency Management Division has a page with updates and resources.