Wednesday, December 30, 2009

FAQs on COBRA subsidy extension: how long, what if you've dropped coverage already, etc. has put out a useful Q&A re: the recent extension of the federal COBRA subsidy. Take a look.

Insurance news: CA workers-comp deal falters, unusual auto sting in PA, and couple allegedly fakes husband's death in life-insurance scam

In California, the state's bid to sell off part of its workers compensation fund has collapsed amid a legal tug-of-war, the LA Times reports.

The New York Times editorializes on "the case for reform" of health care.

An unusual auto-insurance sting took place in Pennsylvania, where 24 people were arrested for alleged fraud. Most of them were allegedly New Yorkers who were saving an estimated $1k to $4k a year on auto insurance by claiming that they lived in Pennsylvania. Insurance Journal has the story.

National Underwriter reports that insurers are sweating proposals to cut crop insurance.

Korea Times reports on the case of a couple who allegedly faked the husband's death -- including videotaping his fake cremation -- in an alleged life-insurance scam. He's been arrested.

Locally here in WA, the Tri-City Herald and (Tacoma) News-Tribune reported on rising numbers of people with no health insurance, as did the Vancouver Columbian.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Reputational risk" insurance follow-up: Researchers put a price tag on the Tiger Woods scandal

Two weeks ago, we mentioned that idea of "reputational risk" insurance being floated in the wake of the Tiger Woods scandal.

But how to measure the damage? This is not like, say, a fire, where an insurer can simply tally up structural damage and replacement cost of contents.

Well, yesterday two professors from the University of California, Davis attempted to put a price tag on the damage, and the number's pretty astounding.

Professors Christopher Knittel and Victor Stango estimate that shareholders in the companies that Woods endorsed lost a total of $5 billion to $12 billion in value in the time between his much-publicized SUV crash and his announcement that he was leaving golf indefinitely. And those calculations don't include losses to Wood's current- or future endorsement income.

Interestingly, the researchers concluded that Woods' sports-related endorsees suffered substantially more economic damage than non-sports companies, like business consultant Accenture.

Insurance news: Green River levees, a deeper look at health-reform bills, and a good 2009 for catastrophes...

In local news, the Seattle Times writes about the potential flood risk of decades-old, poorly-maintained levees in the Green River Valley.

Time details some of the high-visibility things that would kick in immediately under health reform, versus the 2013 start date for much of the legislation.

The Seattle Times covers Congress' moves to close Medicare's infamous "doughnut hole."

A good year: Reinsurer Munich Re AG says that catastrophe costs were down in '09.

The AP reports on a provision in health-reform legislation that would "nudge" people into getting long-term care insurance, at a projected cost of $160-$240 per month deducted from their paychecks.

Monday, December 28, 2009

In Washington, state rate reviews have shaved $300 million from auto, homeowners premiums

Rate reviews by the Washington state insurance commissioner’s office have shaved more than $300 million from Washingtonians’ auto and homeowners insurance bills over the past decade.
“Few people know about this process, but it’s a crucial part of our consumer-protection role,” said Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. “By carefully vetting requested rate increases, we save people substantial money on their premiums.”
In order to change rates, some insurers in Washington must get approval from the state insurance commissioner’s office. The companies produce data and calculations showing their justification for the requested rate. The state’s actuaries then review the request.
Each request is viewed on a case-by-case basis. Some are approved as requested. But many of the approved rates end up lower than what the companies originally requested. The changes can save policyholders millions of dollars a year.
For example, from 2000 through Nov. 30, 2009, rate reviews by the Office of the Insurance Commissioner trimmed more than $55 million from proposed homeowners’ insurance rates.
For personal auto insurance, rate reviews saved consumers nearly $246 million. Here’s a breakdown, by year:
Year Change by OIC Savings to consumers

2000 -.1 percent $1.9 million

2001 -1.1 percent $22 million

2002 -.8 percent $16.9 million

2003 -2.8 percent $60.7 million

2004 -1.4 percent $32.2 million

2005 -.3 percent $7.5 million

2006 -.5 percent $12.8 million

2007 -.7 percent $18.2 million

2008 -1.7 percent $44.5 million

2009 -1.1 percent $28.8 million

Accident forgiveness: how it works

Some insurance companies are offering "accident forgiveness" as an option or to keep a valued customer.

Here, courtesy of the National Assocation of Insurance Commissioners, are some explanations and tips:

What is accident forgiveness?

Accidents can mean expensive repair and liability costs, and lead to higher premiums. Accident forgiveness means that an insurer agrees not to increase a customer ’s premium after the driver is involved in an at-fault accident. It is an enticing perk that many insurance companies offer either as part of a standard policy to loyal customers or as an additional endorsement that drivers with a safe driving record can purchase. Some companies also use it as an incentive to new customers for switching from another insurer. Insurers will often even extend the option to parents of teenage drivers.

While accident forgiveness can seem like a “free pass,” it’s important for consumers to understand the conditions and limitations associated with this option:

1. Is there a cost involved?

In some cases, accident forgiveness is included as part of a standard car insurance policy; however, you will typically pay a higher premium for a policy that includes this added protection. More often, accident forgiveness is offered as an additional endorsement – or coverage option – for a fee. Costs vary by insurer, so check with your current insurer as well as a few others if you’re looking for the best deal.

2. Who is eligible?

As with cost, eligibility may vary by insurer. Typically, qualification for accident forgiveness protection is based on two factors:

Customer loyalty: Many insurers only offer accident forgiveness to customers who have been insured with the company for a certain number of years.

Driving record: To qualify for the benefit, many insurers require that drivers have a clean driving record for several years. Not only will insurers look at your accident history, but some consider driving violations as well. That means that one speeding ticket could impact your eligibility.

3. Are all accident forgiveness policies created equal?

In a word, no. Policy conditions can vary greatly. Some policies require you to maintain a clean driving record for up to five years before you become eligible for accident forgiveness. With other policies, the coverage kicks in immediately. Similarly, some policies offer forgiveness for one accident while others forgive multiple accidents.

4. Does accident forgiveness make sense for you?

After an accident, insurers can raise your premiums by as much as 40 percent. If you are a safe driver who pays standard rates, then depending on the cost, accident forgiveness might not make sense for you. But if you have a history of violations and accidents and already pay higher rates, then opting for the benefit might help you save money in the long run. Talk with your insurance company or agent to learn more about how your rates might be affected by an accident.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Insurance news: NW effects of health-reform bill, docs swapping practices for prison, and a takeover bid by Steak n Shake

Here in the Pacific Northwest, KPLU has an interesting story about the local effects of the health reform bill being debated by Congress.

Speaking of which, the New York Times' Prescriptions blog has an update on the process leading up to a planned Senate vote tomorrow at 8 a.m. Eastern time.

The Associated Press says that the costs of the changes (like new taxes and fees, including a tax on tanning parlors) will be felt long before the benefits. The AP also has a good overview of the looming vote and the differences between the House and Senate, and between Democrats and Republicans. And a third story from the AP says that abortion looms as a possible health bill deal-killer.

CNNMoney profiles some doctors who are choosing the steady paychecks, set hours and free malpractice insurance from prison work over the private sector.

New Jersey's state Senate is pushing ahead with a bill to tighten oversight of insurers.

And in Michigan, a small insurer has rejected a takeover bid by burger chain Steak n Shake.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

IIHS rates 60 booster seats: Test results

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the same organization that does crash tests, has come out with new ratings for dozens of children's booster seats. The key measure was how the seats do what they're supposed to: position children properly for adult-sized seat belts.

The critical things to look for, according to the IIHS:

-The lap part of the belt "should fit flat across a child's upper thighs, not the soft abdomen"
-and the shoulder part of the belt "should cross snugly over the middle of the shoulder."

Here's a list of the 9 models that did best.

Here's are 6 more rated as good.

And here are 11 rated "not recommended."

Insurance news: Anthem, AAUG, and a new study: Which states are the happiest?

Legal Newsline reports that the Connecticut attorney general is unhappy with insurer Anthem and its contracts with local hospitals.

In Washington, D.C., former insurance commissioner Thomas Hampton's joined a local law firm.

Also in D.C., the health care debate rolls on: The NY Times reports on the difficulty of trying to merge the House and Senate bills.

In Florida, AAUG and affiliates were given a cease-and-desist order for allegedly selling unlicensed products there.

And here's a bonus round that admittedly has little to do with insurance: A new study ranked states by their residents' levels of happiness. Washington came in 36th. The happiest? Think Mardi Gras.

And the lowest? Well, we'll put it this way: You don't want to be in a New York state of mind.

We couldn't agree more...

The New York State Insurance Department is urging homeowners to consider flood coverage, saying that homes in high flood risk areas are three times more likely to be flooded than to face something that virtually everyone insures against: fire.

Where to find it? Here's a link to the federal flood insurance program.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Auto rates: Hundreds of millions of dollars saved by rate reviews in WA

Little-known fact, Part II: In order to raise rates, many insurers in Washington state must get approval from the state insurance commissioner's office. The agency's staffers look at the requested rate and the calculations behind it.

In the end, the rate our office approves is often lower than what the companies originally requested. The reduction is usually a small percentage -- over the last 10 years, the reductions in personal auto insurance requests have ranged from 1/10 of a percent to 2.8 percent -- but the amount shaved from premiums is considerable.

From 2000 through Oct. 31, 2009, these rate reviews and reductions shaved nearly $243 million from proposed car-insurance rates.

In the first 10 months of this year, for example, such rate reviews trimmed $26.1 million from proposed rates, a reduction of about 1 percent. In 2008, it was $44.4 million, or 1.7 percent.

Travel insurance advice for stranded travelers

With hundreds of flights canceled on the East Coast due to a major storm and a lot of people stranded while trying to travel for the holidays, it's probably a good time to highlight our travel-insurance primer.

And if you're a Washington resident and have questions or problems with a travel-insurance issue, call our consumer hotline at 1-800-562-6900. We don't sell insurance. We're the Washington state agency that regulates it.

Insurance news: theft charge in fraud case, health-care reform update, State Farm staying (mostly) in FL

But first, thanks to those of you who are reading.

Like most websites, we can tell how many people are reading, how they're getting to this blog, what keywords they search for, etc. And one thing that's become very clear is that people are reading this blog at work. Our numbers drop to near-nothing on weekends, then spike back up early Monday morning. (Apparently, insurance isn't big on people's minds when they sleep in on a Saturday morning.) The only significant exception to this seems to be storm-related posts, such as homeowners searching for information after a recent wind storm.


Insurance Journal and The (Vancouver) Columbian both wrote about a Washington state insurance fraud case.

Lots of news about health-care reform in the runup to an expected Senate vote on Christmas Eve. The Wall Street Journal has an overview entitled "Historic Health Vote Looms," and the LA Times has a nuts-and-bolts comparison of the House and Senate bills, side by side.

Writing in the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson says the bill's passage "could be a nightmare for Obama," while the New York Times' Ross Douthat looks at the GOP's efforts to derail the bill. The New York Times also found some interesting carve-outs in the bills.

Lastly, the Wall Street Journal reports that State Farm is dropping it's plan to leave the property-insurance market in Florida. Instead, the company reached a deal with Florida's insurance regulator that allows the company to not renew 125,000 of its 810,000 Florida policies, and to boost rates on the remaining ones nearly 15 percent.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Auto glass installer pleads guilty to theft in insurance fraud case

A Battle Ground auto glass installer who overbilled an insurance company for years has pleaded guilty to first-degree theft.

Robert T. Wooster, 51, doing business as Dr. Bob’s Auto Glass and DRB Enterprises Auto Glass, is believed to have overcharged Farmers Insurance Company at least $100,000 – and perhaps significantly more – over several years.

“Insurance fraud costs everyone, in the form of higher premiums,” said state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. “ Dr. Bob was doctoring his invoices, illegally inflating them.”

Farmers contacted Kreidler’s office, which has a Special Investigations Unit to investigate insurance fraud. The state investigators served a search warrant on Wooster’s business in late 2007, seizing dozens of fraudulent invoices.

The investigation found that Wooster had two schemes for illegally billing the insurer:

-He would replace chipped or cracked windshields, but bill the company for more-expensive side- or back windows. The insurance commissioner’s office is aware of more than 100 cases in which customers had windshields replaced, but where the records showed that Wooster had billed for side- or back glass.

-He would submit bogus invoices, cutting and pasting photocopied dealer invoices to make it look like his costs for the glass were much higher than they really were. He also fabricated false invoices for parts that were never actually installed, such as new window moldings.

Wooster pleaded guilty to the felony charge this week in Clark County Superior Court. Sentencing is scheduled for mid-February.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Insurance news, including Tiger Woods-style "reputational risk insurance" and alleged death-by-oyster insurance fraud

Wow, it's a day for offbeat insurance news.

First, however, some local news: reports on a new study indicating that a big flood in southern King County could affect $30 billion in property (with $3 billion in potential damage).

In Hawaii, state officials are closing an insolvent insurer.

And in Michigan, the state House has approved a package of bills banning auto insurers from basing rates on a person's occupation, education or credit history, among other changes.

In other news:
  • The Associated Press reports that Georgia's insurance commissioner's under fire for a trip he took to the Oscars.
  • MarketWatch reports that "reputational risk insurance" may be introduced next year to protect against situations like the one that's arisen with the recent revelations about Tiger Woods.
  • And then there's a bizarre story of alleged life-insurance fraud out of South Dakota. The AP reports that a couple has been charged in federal court with faking the husband's death while on a family vacation in Malaysia. Purported cause of death? Bad oysters.

Data: How many people are on government health care?

A lot, it turns out.

Our office ran some numbers for Washington state, tallying the number of people getting health care under Medicare, Medicaid, the state's Basic Health Plan, and the state's General Assistance for the Unemployable program.

Medicare and Medicaid are the big ones, of course. Here in Washington, our office calculates that as of the end of 2008, some 917,000 Washingtonians get health coverage through Medicaid. Another 897,000 get it through Medicare. Add in BHP and GA-U, and it's about 1.93 million people, out of a total state population of about 6.67 million.

In other words, about 29 percent of the state's population is getting their health coverage under a government-run plan.

And these numbers don't include the people who get their health care through the military, state employees' Uniform Medical Plan, federal employees' health coverage, etc.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Flood advice, from finding insurance to flood defense and cleanup

We've set up a special web page with objective advice for people in flood-prone areas, or just curious about what it would cost to get flood coverage. (We're the state agency that regulates the insurance industry in Washington state; we do not sell insurance.)

The page includes information on a local area of concern, Washington's Green River Valley. But it also includes a lot of links to where to find flood coverage, myths and facts about flood coverage (myth 1 is that your homeowner's policy covers it. It doesn't.), and information about avoiding damage and what to do after a flood.

Also, we occasionally field queries from the public about where to find flood coverage. For most people, the first stop is the federal flood insurance program. This is run by FEMA, but sold locally by regular insurance agents and brokers. How to find out who sells it? Here's a handy online tool. Simply type in your zip code, and the website will instantly generate a list of local agents and brokers.

Insurance news: 1 in 5 lost health insurance in the past year

Reuters has a pretty startling story today, based on an analysis done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The upshot:
Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population -- or almost 60 million people -- went without health insurance at some point since January 2008, according to government estimates released Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Insurance news: health care reform continues to struggle, and epilogue on that VW van recovered decades after it was stolen

The health reform debate continues, with the New York Times reporting that Vice President Joe Biden's saying the window's closing, and won't reopen for another generation.

The White House is answering an insurance-industry analysis of the health legislation with its own report.

National Public Radio examines whether the 8 million-person federal health benefits program could be a model for national reform.

And finally, an epilogue on the story of a 1960s Volkswagen van that was stolen in 1974 and recovered -- in beautifully remodeled condition -- a few months ago. After much debate, insurer Allstate, which paid the original owner the theft claim decades ago, has decided to auction off the van and give the money to a group that helps homeless women and children.

Auto insurance rates, by state

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners puts out an annual report tallying auto insurance premiums and other data, state by state. (Here's the link, but note that the report costs $200. Our agency belongs to the NAIC, so we got a copy for free.)

So how does Washington compare? A little higher than average, but definitely in the middle of the pack. The national average for auto insurance coverage in 2007 was $912. Here in Washington, the average cost was $928.

The lowest average cost, it turns out, was in Iowa, where auto coverage cost an average of $620. The highest-cost state was Louisiana, at $1,262. Washington, D.C. was even higher: $1,289.

The 260-page report breaks down premiums by state in far more detail: different kinds of liability, personal injury protection, uninsured/underinsured motorist, etc. etc. It also has car-wreck fatality data (Washington's one of the lowest), average car-repair cost per claim ($2,366, which is about average), car-theft statistics, road miles, and other information.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Insurance fraud: Fake hate crimes can disguise arson, a steep rise in suspicious claims, and fake and deceptive health plans

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, an industry group, says that two types of insurance scams are on the rise: suspicious claims and fake or deceptive health plans. From the organization's winter newsletter:

"Overall, the monthly average of suspicious claims rose more than 36 percent in the first half of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau."

The story has a lot of examples, from a simple slip-and-fall claim to a man who falsely claimed that his tongue had been pierced by a needle hidden in a fast-food hamburged.

The health-plan story talks about people desperate for affordable health coverage who get taken in by "health cons" selling what is purported to be be full-benefit health coverage but in reality is far from it. The story -- full disclosure -- quotes one of our own investigators, Ted Bader:

"These swindles have spread so fast that regulators in many states have been forced to take immediate action to protect consumers due to the sheer volume of such schemes"

said Bader, saying that the cases under investigation are just the tip of the iceberg.

Insurance news: health reform bill struggles, swine flu coverage Q&A, and a tug-of-war over car stolen 35 years ago...

Health-care reform continues to struggle on Capitol Hill. A sampling:

Bloomberg: Democrats' Health-Care Breakthrough Hinges on Cost, Holdouts
NYT: Health Fight Echoes the Stimulus Battle
The Olympian: Senate Dems Struggle to Get Health Care on Track has an interesting factcheck-type story entitled "The Five Biggest Myths About Health Reform."

Travelling? Worried about swine flu? The Seattle Times answers your questions about what travel insurance covers and doesn't.

And now your reward for reading this far: There's a bit of an insurance tug-of-war over a 44-year-old Volkswagen microbus, recovered in beautifully restored condition. Allstate, the insurer that paid the claim when the car was stolen, reports several hundred inquiries from interested buyers. The company is reportedly trying to decide whether to donate the vehicle to a museum or give it back to the woman from whom it was 1974.

Friday, December 11, 2009

More ways to beat the freeze

Just in case you're one of the unlucky people whose pipes have frozen - like yours truly - here's some good tips to follow:

Minimize the chance your pipes will freeze by insulating pipes in unheated areas and those that run along outside walls, floors and ceilings. Disconnect outside garden hoses, and seal foundation cracks that let arctic air freeze pipes in crawlspaces.

A few simple tasks can help protect pipes and homes even as the temp. is dropping:

Open cabinet doors to allow heat to get to piping under sinks and vanities near exterior walls.

Run a small trickle of water from hot and cold faucets during extreme cold.

Keep exterior doors to unheated spaces closed as much as possible during winter months.

• If you plan to be away for an extended period have the water system professionally drained.

• If you are taking a short trip, ask a neighbor to check the house regularly during severe cold spells. Discovering a burst pipe or water leak quickly can prevent excessive damage.

• Install a whole house water leak detection system.

• If you own a business that will be unoccupied for more than 24 hours at a time make arrangements to have the building inspected once a day during winter.

Quickly discovering a burst pipe or water leak can prevent excessive damage.

The deep freeze leads to frozen pipes and insurance claims

This year it's not the snow, but freezing temperatures reeking havoc on Washington homeowners.

State Farm, the state's largest homeowner insurer, has declared their own state of emergency. What does this mean? To get ready for the onslaught of calls and claims, they've hired additional adjusters. So far, they've had 215 freeze-related claims and expect that tally to reach 500.

Some advice for consumers: First, turn off your water source. If your pipes have broken, take steps to mitigate any further damage before you call your insurance company. Learn more. Remember, we're here to help. If you're having trouble with a claim or have questions, call our Insurance Consumer Hotline at 1-800-562-6900.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Insurance news: Commissioners explain support of pay-as-you-drive and even pet insurance is going up

Commissioner Kreidler and PA Commissioner, Joel Ario explain their support in ClimateWire and the New York Times of pay-as-you-drive initiatives and giving insurers the room to experiment with emissions-cutting auto insurance.

Boston Globe: Massachusetts Insurance Commissioner looks into the large disparities in payments to providers – but insurers refused to answer key questions about why some hospitals and doctors are paid up to three times as much as others for the same services.

The Olympian reports outcry begins immediately after Gregoire unveils budget but the Seattle Times says Gov. Gregoire's state budget has merit.

Wall Street Journal: The cost of medical care for pets is rising as fast as it is for humans, and that's helping to spur sales of pet insurance.

Shaving millions of dollars off your insurance bills

Little-known fact: In order to raise rates, many insurers in Washington state must get approval from the state insurance commissioner's office.

The companies produce data and calculations showing their justification for the requested rate. The state's actuaries then review the request. The rate that gets approved is often lower than what the companies originally requested.

The upshot: Behind the scenes, the insurance commissioner's office holds your insurance bills lower. Because each request is viewed on a case-by-case basis, some of the rates are approved as requested; others get trimmed down. The companies often argue that they can justify higher rates than they're actually requesting.

In percentage terms, the changes look minor: an average of a fraction of a percent in some years, up to about 3.5 percent. But in a multi-billion dollar business in Washington, those changes can mean millions of dollars a year shaved from Washingtonians' next insurance bills.

Here, for example, is a breakdown of the average difference between requested rates and approved rates for the top 20 homeowners' insurers doing business in Washington:

Year     Change by OIC     Savings to consumers
2001     -.31 percent          $1.8 million
2002     -3.47 perc             $22.1 million
2003     -1 percent             $7 million
2004     -.02 percent          $153,000
2005     -.02 percent          $170,000
2006     $0                         $0
2007     -.03 percent          $280,000
2008     -.54 percent          $5.2 million
2009     -1.72 percent        $16.7 million
                       Total saved: $53 million

Coming soon: A post on how rate review affected WA auto insurance rates. (The short form: Since 2000, $243 million saved.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eliminating WA’s Basic Health Plan: What it would mean

The proposed elimination of Washington state’s Basic Health Program would accelerate an already bleak trend in Washington state. It would mean tens of thousands fewer people with health coverage. It would also drive the number of uninsured people in Washington above a million next year.

“I fully recognize the grim budget situation that Gov. Chris Gregoire and state lawmakers face,” Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said Wednesday, after the governor proposed eliminating BHP as a cost-cutting measure for the 2010-11 supplemental state budget.

“No one wants to make these kinds of cuts. Potentially losing this coverage would be disastrous for many of the families that rely on it. I support the Governor's plan to restore the Basic Health Plan. But the situation we're facing underscores the critical need for broader health care reform,” he said. “We must fix what is clearly a broken system. We can’t afford not to.”

The cuts would also mean that Washington’s uncompensated medical care – bad debts and charity care – will rise to a record $1 billion by late 2010, instead of the projected 2011.

Including the proposed BHP cut, the percentage of Washingtonians with no health coverage is expected to rise to 15 percent next year.

Another 20 percent of the state’s residents will be “underinsured,” meaning that they have health coverage, but that they spend more than 10 percent of their income to pay for it.

All told, more than 1 in 3 of the state’s residents will be uninsured or underinsured next year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Insurance news: Surge in kidnap-and-ransom coverage, and back-and-forth on the Hill

The New York Times has a fascinating story today about hostage-taking, including a recent surge in "K&R" -- meaning "kidnap and ransom" -- insurance coverage.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Politico reports that a public option compromise is taking shape, and the Washington Post talks about some of the remaining hurdles to passing the bill.

The NYT has a longer take on the latter topic, with more detail on the abortion fight over the Senate bill.

Kreidler wins consumer advocacy award

More about us: Washington state insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler has won a national award for consumer advocacy.

Kreidler last weekend received the "Excellence in Consumer Advocacy Award" given out annually by consumer advisors to a nationwide association of insurance regulators.

The award honors "the regulator we believe has most effectively represented and advanced the interests of consumers,” according toSally B. McCarty, one of the 16 consumer representatives who participate in the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Consumer Liaison Program.

Kreidler and his staff have:

-Cut excessive rate increases on home and auto policies by more than $300 million since 2000,

-Helped consumers recover about $10 million a year in denied and delayed payments on their coverage,

-Rejected a bid by the state’s largest non-profit health insurer to become a for-profit company,

-And worked with lawmakers to close a waiting-period loophole that was endangering the lives of organ-transplant patients.

Kreidler, a former member of Congress, is Washington’s eighth insurance commissioner. First elected commissioner in 2000, he was re-elected to a third term in 2008.

At Kreidler’s urging, Washington also became one of the first states in the nation to strongly limit the use of credit scoring in auto and homeowner’s insurance. Kreidler is now trying to ban its use entirely in insurance.

WA insurance commissioner retains national accreditation

Washington state's Office of the Insurance Commissioner has retained national accreditation as a regulator following an audit by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler received the award at the NAIC's winter meeting over the weekend. Accreditation means that the office's ability to monitor insurance companies for financial stability -- which is a big part of what the agency does -- meets or exceeds national standards.

Accreditation was lost in 1999 under a prior administration. An NAIC audit at the time found that staffing levels, training, exam procedures, timeliness and oversight at the agency were not up to national standards.

Kreidler made restoring accreditation a top priority when he took office in 2001, and the agency was re-accredited six months after he took office.

Monday, December 7, 2009

New report has practical, real-world advice for coping with crush of medical bills

Families USA has put out a very good guide for people struggling with medical debts. The topic's bleak, but the advice can be critical.

In addition to the usual advice -- make sure the charges are correct, find out your appeal rights -- the 20-page booklet has good, real-world advice for folks who cannot afford to pay. It includes pointers on how to ask billing offices to write-off or forgive some of the bill, negotiate a lower rate, and what to ask for in a payment plan.

Other advice: Prioritize child support and income tax debts, since failure to pay can mean serious legal problems. Avoid adding medical debts to your mortgage, which puts your home at risk.

The guide looks at different types of bankruptcies, how to protect yourself if sued, whether money can be taken from your paycheck, and how to deal with bill collectors.

Insurance news, and lots of it. (Bonus: the strange case of the house-licking cows)

The New Yorker's Atul Gawande talks about a key part of health-insurance reform: Controlling health-care costs.

The L.A. Times has a good Q&A re: the legislation, including things like will you go to jail for not having health insurance. (A: Not likely.)

Insurance Journal reports that a Southern California accountant has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for stealing more than $2m from a pet insurer.

Speaking of animals, a Tennessee man reported $100 in damage to his home from escaped cows licking his house. Really. talks about proposed health reforms from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Here in Washington, insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler is unhappy about a public standoff between health insurer Aetna and the University of Washington over rates paid to the university's several major health-care facilities. KING 5 has the story.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How do they get insurance at Gatorland?

How does one underwrite, um, alligator wrestling?

Someone does, apparently. Insurance Journal, a trade journal, has put together a video about risk management and insurance at...Florida's "Gatorland" theme park.

Why is a dead chihuahua worth $30k?

If you've ever lost a family pet, then you know the pain that comes with that loss. Now imagine that someone else is responsible for poor fido's demise. According to an article by Peter Lewis in MSN Money, there's a growing movement to recognize the intangible value of pets and to seek redress for their untimely death:

Courts usually don't agree because the law doesn't allow them to. In fact, a pet owner typically can't recover much more than out-of-pocket expenses when an animal is injured or killed due to some one's negligence. Current practice is to value pets at what they would cost to replace, the way insurers put a price on used cars.

But the article points out several cases where people successfully sued for damages. For example:

In 2002, an Oregon jury awarded $136,000 to a family that lost four dogs to a neighbor they alleged had poisoned them because he was fed up with their barking.

In a civil suit that went to arbitration in Washington state in 2008, three men were ordered to pay $30,000 after killing a Chihuahua named Tia. The men had been drinking, and one was asleep in a car when Tia, barking in her backyard, apparently awakened him. He shot her dead.

In 2007, Chicago settled with resident Calvin Hale after a police officer who ran through his property in pursuit of a suspect shot and killed his 10-year-old Akita, which Hale had raised since puppyhood. He received $27,500.

So what do these trends mean? Possibly higher homeowners insurance, veterinary bills and even leashes and pet food.

Number of insurance complaints, by company

Our office received an email last night from a woman looking to change auto insurers, but wanting to make sure she made a wise choice. Here's what she said:
How can I get information to rate auto insurance companies? I want to change companies and I think looking at the premiums only is not a thorough way to research where I want to change my auto insurance. Is there a page that shows percent of complaints or any other information that would be useful. Many thanks.
I emailed her back, steering her to our online "complaint comparison tool" that allows consumers to easily compare complaint ratios for auto (or other kinds of) insurance. One caveat: the numbers can be skewed for companies with only a very small number of policies, which is why we also list the market share of each.

Take a look.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kreidler: Premera's take on cost of health-care reform is misleading

In early November, Premera Blue Cross issued an analysis urging people to contact their Congressional representatives to oppose health reform legislation then in the U.S. House, on the grounds that it would “drive average premiums dramatically higher.”

Passing health reform in its current form, the letter warned, would boost health care premiums “by over $7,000” for families buying new or different coverage.

After a meeting between Office of the Insurance Commissioner’s staff and Premera officials to discuss the basis for the analysis, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler this week sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation.

Premera’s numbers are misleading, Kreidler said. In particular, the analysis gave no consideration to reforms aimed at reducing the cost of premiums. Nor did it take into effect the availability of new premium subsidies that would make health insurance affordable for many of those who can’t currently pay premiums for themselves or their families.

From the letter:

“…the Premera communication appears to be more of a political document than an actual analysis of the effects of any specific proposal before Congress…It ignores any of the expected benefits to passage of health care reform legislation.

“Health care reform is serious business. Individuals, businesses, organizations and industries are welcome and encouraged to speak their opinions. However, those debating the issues should do honest analyses, using complete information about the legislation currently under debate.”

The full text of the letter is here.

Kreidler: Fewer than 1 in 4 have federal flood coverage in the Green River Valley

Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said Thursday that a recent check showed that fewer than 1 in 4 of the buildings in the Green River flood plain have federal flood insurance. He's strongly urging more owners -- as well as renters -- in the area to buy flood coverage as soon as possible.

Recent work on the Howard Hanson Dam has lowered the risk of catastrophic flooding in the valley. That's the good news," said Kreidler. "But the risk of flooding is still significantly higher than normal."

It's important to act quickly, he said. The insurance, sold by local agents and brokers as part of the National Flood Insurance Program, generally doesn't take effect until 30 days after a policy is written.

Also, FEMA is revising some of its flood maps in the area. In the Green River Valley, the new maps will likely broaden the areas considered high-risk zones. The new maps take effect in September 2010. But under NFIP's "grandfather rule," people in areas considered moderate- to low-risk zones can buy coverage now and lock in the lower rates, which will apply even after the new maps take effect. The average flood insurance policy from NFIP costs $540 per year.

According to the NFIP, as of Sept. 30, 21.4 percent of the structures in the Green River flood plain were insured through the federal program, which is the primary source of flood coverage for most homeowners and many businesses. Some 474 of the area's commercial structures and 2,542 homes are covered. Statewide, only 16.5 percent of at-risk structures have federal flood coverage.

One little-known aspect of the federal program is that it also offers coverage to renters. Residential premiums start as low as $39 a year for contents-only coverage.

"Renters shouldn't assume that their apartment owner's insurance will cover their losses, because it generally doesn't," said Kreidler. "A flooded apartment can easily lead to thousands of dollars in damages. Renters have to protect themselves, too.

Congress established the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 to provide an insurance alternative to federal disaster assistance after major floods. The Federal Emergency Management Agency administers the NFIP, although the policies are sold and adjusted by thousands of private-sector insurance agents, brokers and adjusters.

The policies cover up to $250,000 for residential structures and $100,000 for contents. Businesses can buy up to $500,000 in coverage for a building and $500,000 for contents. And renters can buy up to $100,000 in coverage for their belongings.

Property owners needing more coverage than that, such as businesses, generally have to purchase “excess” coverage through a surplus lines insurance broker. These policies can be very hard to find now – and very expensive -- in the Green River Valley. And such policies often require the buyer to first have federal flood coverage.

Kreidler’s office is urging private insurers to keep selling policies in the area, and is seeking legislation that would allow his office to intervene when an insurance market dries up.

“We’re doing what we can under current law,” said Kreidler. “But I strongly – strongly – urge Green River Valley residents to get federal flood coverage.”

New domestic partnership law = new insurance rights

Washington state's new domestic partnership law goes into effect today, creating new insurance rights for nearly 13,000 people in our state.

For most insurance coverage, it's pretty straightforward; wherever your policy says "spouse" it must also cover state-registered domestic partners. But if you're partner hasn't been named on your policy you'll need to contact your insurance company directly to make sure they're covered.

Here's a list of commonly asked questions about the new law and insurance.

Health insurance is less cut and dry. If your employer self insures -- meaning they don't have a private insurance plan -- state laws don't apply. If you're not sure what type of health plan you have, we can help. Call us at 1-800-562-6900 and we'll help you sort it out.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New report: Car/pedestrian accidents, by state and city

Now for a related topic: Your odds of getting run over.

Transportation for America, a group that advocates for safer streets, has just put out a report ranking cities on how dangerous they are for car/pedestrian accidents.

The most striking thing about the data is that the top four most-dangerous cities are all in Florida: Orlando, Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville, in that order.

In fact, the most dangerous metropolitan areas tend to be in the South: Memphis, Raleigh, Louisville, Houston, Birmingham and Atlanta. And if you're thinking that it's because more people walk there, the report says, that's not necessarily the case. Orlando, for example, has "a very low proportion of residents walking to work" -- 1.3 percent -- but a very high pedestrian fatality rate.
In other words, the few people who do walk in Orlando face a relatively high risk of being killed by a vehicle.
The real problem, the report says, is often poorly designed roads that force pedestrians to walk along -- or cross -- arterials.

Here in Washington state, the most dangerous metro area is Yakima, although its "pedestrian danger index" of about 81 is relatively low compared to the cities listed above. Next-worst are the Tri-Cities, Bellingham and Vancouver. Spokane and Olympia rank relatively well, and Lewiston has a perfect record: No pedestrian fatalities in 2007 or 2008.

Interesting report from State Farm: Your odds of hitting a deer, by state

For any driver who's ever nervously eyed the roadside for reflected eyes at night, State Farm has some interesting data. Overall, the insurer says, your odds of hitting a deer in the next year are 1 in 209. (The company helpfully includes a yardstick: your odds of being audited by the IRS are 1 in 100.)

But the rates (of deer collisions) vary dramatically by state. In Hawaii, good luck even finding a deer. The odds there are 1 in 10,962. (92 people apparently managed nonetheless.)

In West Virginia, however, you might want to install what the Australians call 'Roo Bars. The odds of hitting a deer there in any given year, State Farm says, are an astounding 1 in 45.

And here in Washington state? 1 in 516.

Here to help is Washington's Department of Transportation, which put up a very good blog post detailing why the deer tend to come out of the woods at this time of year and what do do when speeding toward them. The short form: watch for brake lights or slow-moving cars ahead, know that where you see one deer there are often more close by, and, if a collision is imminent, try to drive straight and not swerve.

And if you really love stats, here, also courtesy of WSDOT's blog, is the mother lode of deer/car data in Washington.

(And yes, we know that's an elk in the photo. It's just what we had handy at the time.)

Insurance news: Study says no big rise in premiums, MI lawmakers target auto coverage costs, Passaic NJ thinking of billing insurers for firefighting

Seattle Times: Women’s insurance amendment gets first Senate vote

Car insurance scofflaws raise health mandate doubt

NY Times: Report cites big shortfall in reserves at AIG

No big cost rise in U.S. premiums is seen in study

(Spokane, WA) Spokesman-Review: Hospitals awaiting reform assurances

Michigan: House Democrats unveil plan to cut auto insurance rates: The legislative plan would require insurance companies to offer low-cost auto insurance to low-income drivers with good driving records. The 10-bill package also would:
• Prohibit insurance companies from using some factors to set rates, such as drivers’ level of education, their occupations and personal credit ratings.
• Prohibit auto insurance rate increases for those with good driving records who are not at fault in accidents. • Allow the state insurance commissioner to deny rate hikes by insurance companies before the rates take effect, and order refunds for consumers who are charged too much.

NJ: City of Passaic is considering billing insurers for firefighting costs: $500 for a home and $25k for a business.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Insurance news: COBRA subsidy expiring for some, health-reform battle is joined in the Senate, and local lawmakers say reforms will help, not hurt, seniors

Big news of the day, of course, is that the Senate's launching the health care debate. Or, as the Seattle Times summed it up: "Turbulence Ahead."

Fox News argues that a better solution would be national regulation of health insurers, freeing up families to buy insurance that best fits their needs, from companies anywhere in the country.

The immediate worry for millions of Americans is the fact that the 65 percent federal COBRA subsidy is starting to expire. That's a potential huge hit to the household budgets of the 7 million laid-off Americans who are getting the subsidy.

Here in Washington state, two lawmakers argue in an Everett Herald op-ed that the health reform bills in Congress would help senior citizens, by improving "Medicare's finances so it will remain viable for generations to come."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Insurance news: Hospital visit leads to Bankruptcy court, and WA one of 14 states where insurers compete

The NY Times' Kevin Sack reports on a plight all too common today -- the rise in personal bankruptcies due to illness. It's one of the most compelling arguments today for national health care reform - that many of us are one diagnosis away from financial disaster.

One fellow interviewed for the story resorted to credit cards to pay his medical bills after he lost his job. "I tell my wife that we beat the economy," he said,
"but health care beat us."

The Wall Street Journal says both sides of the reform debate are playing chicken -- debating the trigger point for when a state would have to offer a public option. The opt out/ opt in provision appeals to both sides - one side says it'll never happen, and the other can point to the inevitability. Much of the debate centers on whether insurers are competing in your state. According to the American Medical Association, Washington state is one of 14 states where health insurers still compete. Check it out.

Free credit report - really?

Have you seen those goofy ads with the annoying rock band touting free credit reports? They're a good reminder to get your annual free credit report -- especially now that insurance companies are looking more closely at your credit history. But make sure you click on the real free credit report site.

Experian, one of the major credit bureaus, is behind the catchy ads. But watch out - there's a hidden fee. Many who thought they were signing up for the free annual credit report were actually charged $14.95 for monthly credit monitoring services. Experian has paid more than a $1 million over the last five years to settle FTC charges that it misled consumers.

Read the full story here.

Want a FREE credit report? Here you go.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fifty years of auto safety: 2009 Chevy Malibu versus 1959 Chevy Bel Air

Speaking of car safety, it's probably a good time to reprise this video from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The point was to show that car safety has improved dramatically over the years. See for yourself:

Insurance news: FDIC falls into the red, help for Chinese drywall homes, and harrowing video of 1968 crash tests

It's a little afield from what we usually write about, but Dow Jones and many other publications are reporting today that the FDIC insurance fund that protects trillions of dollars in bank deposits has gone into the red after the recent collapse of 50 banks.

The Associated Press looks at an interesting aspect of the health-reform debate: What about the relatively low-paid people -- Exhibit A is teachers early in their careers -- who nonetheless have "Cadillac" health plans?

The National Insurance Crime Bureau, which combats insurance fraud, has set up a way for people to send text messages reporting fraud.

In Louisiana, that state's insurance commissioner is stepping in to try to help people who had trouble-plagued Chinese drywall installed in their homes. Among the steps: Insurers will be prohibited from dropping coverage for such homes, so long as the policy holders have been customers for at least three years.

In New Jersey, American Generald has agreed to reinstate the $100k policy of a man who made payments for years, but then had his coverage cancelled due to a late payment while he was taking care of his terminally-ill wife.

And National Public Radio takes a look at auto crash tests, and how they're affecting car safety. The unsurprising result: things are getting better. (Here are the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's brand-new top safety picks, for example.) From the story:
"In '95, half of the vehicles we tested rated 'Poor,' " Zuby says. "Today, virtually all earn a 'Good' rating."
If you want to see just how far we've come, Autoblog has an amazing compilation of harrowing crash-test film clips from 1968. The short form: Those tank-like behemoths of yesteryear were nowhere near as safe as they felt.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New women's health guidelines leave many questioning their coverage

Last week's double announcement from two separate leading health panels scaling back the frequency of cancer screenings for women left many questioning their own preventive care and insurance coverage.

New guidelines for mammograms issued last Monday from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force pushes the recommended date for a woman's first mammogram from 40 to 50 years old.

Four days later, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists announced that women should delay their first Pap test until age 21, and every two years after that.

Health insurers, including Medicare, say they're unlikely to change coverage for cancer screenings, pointing to other guidelines from such groups as the Amercian Cancer Society -- which urges more frequent screening.

If the clinical guidelines do eventually change, health plans may change their benefits for routine mammography and pap smears to reflect the new guidelines, but this would be phased in over time. But Washington women have extra protection. State law requires insurers to cover mammograms if recommended by the patient's provider.

Insurance news: the hazards of looking happy on Facebook and where to spend those flex-plan dollars

Lots of coverage of the health-care reform debate in Congress this morning, and the headlines sum it up:
-Health Haggling Heats Up (Wall Street Journal)
-Schumer: Dems ready to go it alone on health care (Seattle Times)
-Gaps for consumers in Democrat health care bills (Seattle Times)
-Health bill threatened by friction between moderates, liberals (Tacoma News-Tribune)

To the north, there's the story about the Canadian woman who was off the job for a year with depression but then made the mistake of posting happy-looking photos on her Facebook page. Result: benefits denied.

Finally, some financial advice, also from the Seattle Times: Spend down your flexible spending account. (Tip: things like hand sanitizer, first aid supplies, contact lens supplies qualify.)

Insurance-fraud charges against Tacoma couple

A Tacoma couple and a co-worker are facing felony insurance fraud charges after allegedly falsifying receipts for an insurance claim.

Anthony Mezias, 37, and his wife Melissa Mezias, 34, have been charged in Pierce County Superior Court with one count each of first-degree theft and two counts of making a false claim or proof in an insurance case. Also charged was Benjamin Little, 33, of Seattle, who faces one count of false claim or proof.

In late 2006, the Mezias’ reported that their home had been burglarized and their car stolen. Over a period of four months, they submitted inventories to their insurer, State Farm, totaling more than $49,000 in personal property they said had been stolen.

The claim included a 57-inch television, allegedly purchased from a stranger for $5,800 in cash. The Mezias’ provided the insurer with a notarized proof of purchase from the seller, Benjamin Little. The notary information turned out to be forged, and Little reportedly was a co-worker of Anthony Mezias.

Also in the insurance claim was a $3,000 Persian rug that the Mezias’ allegedly bought from their next-door neighbor. Investigators from state insurance commissioner’s Special Investigations Unit questioned the neighbor. He said he’d never sold the Mezias’ a Persian rug. He also said that the Mezias’ were looking for someone to pretend to be the seller so that they could collect money from their insurance company.

Arraignment for all three is scheduled this week in Pierce County Superior Court.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Insurance news

The Seattle Times reports on the clash over rates between Swedish Medical Center and Regence BlueShield in Washington:
The largest hospital system in the Puget Sound area is threatening to end its contract with the state's largest health insurer unless it receives higher payments for medical services.
(Here's the state insurance commissioner's take on the issue.)

The Times also reports that Democratic moderates in Congress are now the pivot point for health-care legislation.

Also in Washington state, KUOW radio reports that the number of people with no health insurance is on track to hit a million soon.

West Seattle man charged with 28 counts of theft in insurance fraud case

Edward Charles Bailey, 59, of West Seattle, has been charged in King County Superior Court with 28 counts of theft for allegedly committing insurance fraud.

Bailey, who reported an on-the-job back injury to his employer in 2006, was placed on temporary total disability and received disability pay from his employer’s insurer, Alaska National Insurance. Doctors subsequently ruled him unable to return to work.

Five weeks after the injury, investigators working for the insurance company videotaped Bailey working vigorously on his sailboat at a Seattle marina. The sanding, painting, climbing and moving of machinery were all contrary to the physical restrictions imposed by Bailey’s doctors, according to the Washington insurance commissioner’s Special Investigations Unit.

When shown the video, the independent medical examination doctors who had originally seen Mr. Bailey reversed their original opinion as to his ability to work.

According to the charges, Bailey was paid more than $26,000 in unnecessary medical expenses and disability benefits that he wasn’t entitled to.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Washington projection: 1 million uninsured, $1 billion/yr in uncompensated care by 2011

The number of Washingtonians with no health insurance will soon reach 1 million, according to a new report by Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

Kreidler also predicts that the cost of uncompensated medical care in the state will reach $1 billion annually by 2011.

“The widespread and growing lack of health insurance in Washington state is hurting families, communities and our state’s economy in ways that we can no longer afford to ignore,” said Kreidler.

The report includes costs, trends, projections and a county-by-county breakdown of the number of uninsured people.

In seven years, the total cost of uncompensated care—uncollected medical debts and charity care by hospitals and other health providers—has increased by over 80 percent from $457 million in 2002 to a projected $830 million by the end of this year.

Many of these costs are quietly passed on to the insured in the form of a hidden tax. According to the report, uncompensated care costs the average insured Washington family $917 a year.

Kreidler added that today, even people with insurance are struggling.

“One in four people with insurance don’t have enough to meet their needs in a medical emergency,” he said. “Half of the uncompensated care costs today are generated by people with insurance – people who are one diagnosis away from bankruptcy.”

In general, rural areas are harder hit. For example, by 2011, the number of uninsured people in King County will reach 14.3 percent. Less-urban areas of Washington will see average uninsured rates of nearly 19 percent.

“An economic recovery will not solve this problem,” said Kreidler. “Even in good times, health care costs continued to rise and so have the numbers of the uninsured and underinsured. We’re at a critical crossroads today. Health care inflation is far outstripping the business and personal-income increases necessary to pay for health care.”

Unusual public tussle between Regence and Swedish over rates

In an unusual move, Regence BlueShield in Washington today issued a press release saying that Swedish Medical Center intended to terminate its contract with Regence if the two couldn't agree on new rates. Under the headline "Swedish Notifies Regence of Intent to Terminate Contract," Regence president Jonathan Hensley is quoted as saying, in part:
Swedish, already known as one of the highest-cost hospital systems in the state, is demanding a 32 percent rate increase over the term of the agreement, an increase that our members – individuals, seniors, small businesses and working families – cannot afford. A 32 percent increase is more than double the amount other hospitals would receive. (Here's a link to the full statement.)
By mid-afternoon, Swedish had issued its own press release, saying that the company was "astonished" to read Regence's version, which it called "a blatant attempt to scare patients." Swedish said "an official termination letter has not been issued, and those covered by Regence are still welcome at Swedish." (Here's that link.)

The public tussle drew yet a third statement, this time from Washington's insurance commissioner, Mike Kreidler:
I am profoundly disappointed at this public announcement at this time, due to the unsettling effect it has on consumers. Giving notice of intent to terminate provider contracts is a normal business practice, and the vast majority of these negotiations end successfully. Making this public in such a way now will unnecessarily alarm consumers and serves no one.

Although I have no direct regulatory authority over the rates that health carriers pay their providers, I fully expect both Regence and Swedish to continue good faith negotiations to resolve this contract dispute for the benefits of all health care consumers.

In the event that Regence and Swedish are unable to come to terms, the Office of the Insurance Commissioner will take all necessary steps to assure that consumers have access to the services covered by their benefit contracts, and that there is an appropriate transition plan for Swedish patients who have Regence BlueShield coverage.

Insurance news: Which cars are the least safe, a great breakdown of the House and Senate health-reform proposals, and the strange saga of the Deer That Attacked the Pennsylvania Insurance Office

USA Today: We saw the news about the safest cars, but which are the least safe? (Hint: Don't get rear-ended in your Hummer H3)

CNN Money: Your options if the 65 percent COBRA subsidy goes away

NY Times: At last: an understandable breakdown of what's in the House and Senate health-care reform proposals. (This is actually very well done, a nice blend of readable, concise, and still a good level of detail.)

Forgot to post this one yesterday: Michigan Messenger: For 12-year-old boy without an arm, insurance has run out (Lifetime maximum benefit of $30k on prostheses means no more artificial arms for the boy)

And now for my pick for the Insurance News Story of the Week: Herd of deer smash through Pittsburgh-area insurance office. Describes "a flash of hooves and fur" and deer smashing through a door, jumping through a window, etc.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Flood-related info: How much is it raining at the Howard Hanson Dam?

The office of the Washington State Climatologist is monitoring two rain gauges near the Howard Hanson Dam, monitoring in near-real-time how much water is feeding into the reservoir.

Heavy rainfall in January 2009 -- when the reservoir went from nearly-empty to nearly-full in 48 hours -- damaged an earthen abutment adjacent to the dam. The Army Corps of Engineers and contractors have been working to strengthen the dam by injecting concrete-like grout into the abutment to strengthen it. Still, the Corps has repeatedly said that it may be necessary to spill extra water over the dam to avoid stressing it. A Corps official recently put the odds of serious flooding below the dam -- a heavily developed area of south King County -- at about 1 in 33. That's a significant improvement from the earlier odds of 1 in 3.

Still, people's eyes are on the skies this winter. So the climatologist's office has created this website to report precipitation recorded at two weather stations near the dam, as well as accumulated precipitation for the year. The data's put on graphs, alongside a 30-year precipitation average for those sites.

And here's some good news: The climatologist's office says that the forecast of an El Nino is fortunate for residents of the Green River Valley below the dam since, in Washington, El Nino cycles tend to "tip the odds towards drier average weather."

Need help with your health insurance?

Check out our new Web page on health insurance. We've included everything you need to know -- from advice on how to find coverage, to tips on finding a provider who'll take your insurance. One of the most common questions we get from consumers is how to file a claim and what to expect during the process. Here's what you need to know.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How much does uncompensated medical care cost everyone? How many people have no health insurance?

Heads up: After weeks of research, our office will on Thursday release a new report detailing the scope of uncompensated medical care in Washington, as well as the number of Washingtonians who have no health coverage at all. The report includes a county-by-county breakdown of the numbers, which -- really -- are staggering.

We're still working on it, but we'll post findings, some analysis, and a link to the full report on this site Thursday afternoon.

We're also planning a couple of news conferences to discuss the report and data. For details, see here.

Insurance news: Local flood warning, more data re: lack of insurance being deadly, and reform continues to struggle in Congress

The L.A. Times discusses the recent Archives of Surgery finding that people without health coverage are more likely to die from car accidents and other traumatic injuries, even though hospital emergency rooms are required to care for all who show up. The story includes several possible explanations for this.

The Seattle Times also reports that many seniors remain unconvinced that health care reform will be good for Medicare, or for them. Much of the story's summed up by this sentence:
Even seniors who understand their sweet deal comes courtesy of taxpayers don't want the perks jeopardized.
The Wall Street Journal reports that this week "could offer a test of (Sen. Harry) Reid's ability to hold together Democrats and independents in the 60-vote majority needed" to shut down a GOP filibuster over the Democrat's version of health reform.

And one prominent analyst, the NY Times reports, is now skeptical that Congress will "pass impactful health reform legislation this year, or even in this political cycle."

And locally, the Olympian reports that major flooding of the Chehalis River is possible -- but not certain -- in Thurston and Grays Harbor Counties, with the Chehalis River cresting tonight.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wind storm coming to parts of Western WA

The National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning for half a dozen areas of the state:
  • San Juan County
  • Western Whatcom County
  • Western Skagit County
  • Admiralty Inlet Area
  • North Coast
  • Central Coast
The agency says that "a strong Pacific frontal system just offshore will produce damaging winds along the coast and in the north interior this morning...More widespread high winds are possible Monday night and Tuesday...Local damaging wind gusts to around 60 mph can be expected as a strong weather system moves through the region."

During this time of year, our office tends to field a lot of queries from people who've had wind- or storm-related damage. (We're the state agency that regulates insurance in Washington.) Here are a couple of common ones:

Am I covered if my car was damaged by falling limbs? If your car was damaged, that damage should be covered under the comprehensive coverage in your auto insurance policy. (If you opted for comprehensive coverage, that is. Some people, to save money, just get liability coverage.)

My yard is covered with branches from the storm. None of them hit the house or my fence, so there's no property damage. But would the cleanup costs be covered in this case? Sorry, probably not. Standard homeowner's policies typically only pay for such cleanup if your property was actually damaged. In other words, your home, garage, fence, etc. would probably have to first be damaged by the debris for the insurer to pay to remove it. Standard policies don't cover the loss of trees or shrubs because of wind.

My business has an awning over the sidewalk, and it's been damaged by the wind. Is it covered? Probably, but check with your agent or insurer to be sure, since business insurance can vary a lot. Also, many business policies have business interruption coverage, which can be very useful if a covered loss forces you to close the business. But there are often deductibles or other limits, so they may not apply if the business interruption is for just a few days.

Click here for a lot more storm-related Q&As re: insurance.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kreidler makes the case to seniors for health care reform

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler headlined the recent Senior Citizen Lobby's fall conference in Sea-Tac. He made the case for national health care reform, stating that today's health crisis is evidence that we can't afford to wait. Click on the video to hear more.

And here's how he wrapped it up, predicting what will happen if we squander this window of opportunity.

Insurance news: Cell phone app tries to diagnose you by the sound of your cough, veterans are dying from lack of health coverage, and 1 million people spending an average fo $400 a year on health insurance for their pets

Researchers at Harvard Medical School say that a lack of health insurance helped kill 2,266 U.S. military veterans last year, because they lacked access to health care. The authors note that the number of deaths is far more than the 155 U.S. troops who died last year in Afghanistan.

The Detroit News reports that Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co. is asking homeowner's insurance applicants if they -- or anyone else living in the home -- have been convicted of crimes including arson, property destruction, etc.

Discovery News reports that a new cell phone application claims to be able to diagnose ailments by analyzing the sound of your cough.

USA Today's opinion page argues that letting illegal immigrants buy insurance on a new health insurance exchange -- the House bill would allow this, the Senate version would not -- would benefit everyone. Why? Because it makes it less likely that uninsured people will turn up at hospital emergency rooms or clinics for charity care, the cost of which gets passed on to people with insurance.

And the Washington Times, meanwhile, writes about "an overwhelming wave of interest" by employers and pet owners in pet health care insurance. Interesting stat:

More than 1 million pet owners across the country are spending about $400 a year to insure their pets.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Howard Hanson dam flood maps: Lower flood risk, but we still recommend flood coverage

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has created several "inundation maps" showing possible areas of flooding -- and how much each would be underwater -- if the Corps has to release more water than usual from behind the weakened Howard Hanson dam.

The Corps, which had earlier put the odds of severe flooding as high as 1 in 3, now says that extensive work to strengthen the abutment has lowered those odds to 1 in 25. Further work this month should improve those odds.

There are four versions of the maps, projecting how things would look in the Green River Valley below the dam at each of four release levels:
-13,900 cubic feet per second
-17,600 cfs
-19,500 cfs
-and the worst case scenario: 25,000 cfs.

The yellow areas are light flooding -- 2-3 feet of water -- and the green areas are deeper: 6-10'. The lowland areas where water would pool more deeply than that are marked in shades of blue and light purple.

Hints for navigating the maps: Use the zoom tool (yes, the little magnifying glass) to get in close enough to see road names, streams, etc. You can zoom in quite a bit. (Zoom out by holding down your keyboard's CRTL button and clicking your mouse.)

If you need more detailed maps, click on this link and go to the "Large Format" versions of the maps. Even over a fast Internet connection, these large files can take a minute or more to load.

Although the flood risk is apparently lower than it was, our office is still recommending that people in the area get flood coverage. (We are the state of Washington's insurance regulatory agency.) The National Flood Insurance Program offers coverage for homes and businesses, although businesses will have to find other, private carriers for things like business-interruption coverage or large-value properties.

The federal flood coverage is sold through local brokers and agents, so check first with your regular agent. If they don't sell it -- and not all do -- you can get a list of local sellers through National Flood Insurance Program website or by calling them at 1-888-379-9531.

And don't put it off. The federal coverage doesn't take effect until 30 days after the policy is written.

And more insurance news: Misgivings among some Democrats over health reform bills, and AIG's CEO in better days lambastes his successors

A couple more key insurance stories today:

The New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports that "the White House is facing a growing revolt from some Democrats and analysts who say the bills Congress is considering do not fulfill President Obama's promise to slow the runaway rise in health care spending."

And Business Week has a pretty interesting Q&A with former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg. It's always easy after a corporate meltdown, of course, to be the guy saying that you would have done things differently. But Greenberg, who left the company under pressure back in 2005, really takes up the cudgel:
I know for a fact that [Martin] Sullivan told everybody: "Just do everything you want, get as much business as you can, and don't worry about a goddam thing." Everything they did disregarded risk management. That's not the way you run a company. And the board sat on its tail. Frank Zarb did nothing. He was the goddam chairman. What did he do?

Insurance news: Clinton argues that nation can't afford NOT to fix health care, insurers profits not as high as many think, and CA gets closer to pay-as-you-drive auto coverage

Insurance news today:

The Associated Press reports that Bill Clinton is urging Senate Dems to pass health care: "My argument was that this is an economic imperative," Clinton said after the closed-door meeting, citing ever-higher medical costs and nearly 50 million uninsured.

ABC News has a story looking at how much money health insurers have been making, headlining it "Health insurance profits: Not so outrageous after all?"  Story includes interesting data, with a breakdown of how recent investment losses affected profits. (And a reader hastens to point out that here in Washington state, the major health plans are not-for-profits.)

Speaking of health insurers, the Philadelphia Inquirer has a story about doctors unhappy with insurers. From it:
"My colleagues and I spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone arguing with insurance companies for therapies we know are right. It's reached a breaking point," said John Maris, chief of the oncology division at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
California, meanwhile, is getting closer to Pay-As-You-Drive insurance, reports. That state's insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner, has authorized new rules allowing such plans to move ahead.

In sunny -- and stormy -- Florida, has an interesting opinion piece about the state of property insurance there:
In terms of property insurance, homeowners have been living in something of a fool's paradise in Florida for several years. There's little evidence that, if a major hurricane strikes, property owners would be sufficiently covered, given the anticipated withdrawal of State Farm from the market — thanks to a political showdown two years ago with Gov. Charlie Crist, who said the insurance giant's rate request was unreasonable. But those 770,000 customers are not necessarily ensured of coverage in a market where incoming companies haven't shown much interest in mom-and-pop properties. These largely unregulated "surplus lines" specialize in high-risk, commercial, waterfront properties instead.
Lastly, broad health insurance reforms are moving ahead rapidly, in Kenya. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation reports that Kenya's government aims to have all Kenyans covered with health insurance by 2017.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Insurance news: Mental health parity goes nationwide, and financials from Allianz and Primerica

Mental health parity goes nationwide. From the NY Times:
Because of a new federal law that takes effect for most insurance plans on Jan. 1, the Mental Health Parity Act, there is a very good chance that your mental health coverage has indeed changed — possibly for the better.
Forbes: Life insurance helps Allianz to strong Q3, stock up

Bloomberg: Primerica's initial value $1.6 billion (with an odd choice of photo)

How to stop a runaway car

Let's hope this never happens to you, but Consumer Reports offers up this advice if your car's engine suddenly starts accelerating out of control: DO NOT PUMP THE BRAKES.

Instead: press and hold the brake down, while shifting into neutral. The engine will race, but that's not the important thing. Pull over and turn the engine off.

Here's an excellent two-minute video from the group, which shows you exactly why not to pump the brakes.