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.

WSJ analysis: What the House Bill Would Mean for Various Groups

...Including the uninsured, the insured, small- and large employers, hospitals, etc.

Story is here.

Insurance news: Progressive launches its pay-as-you-drive plan in RI, some cautions about life settlements, and a gruesome insurance fraud case

Progressive launches its pay-as-you-drive auto insurance program, called MyRate, in Rhode Island. From Business Wire:
MyRate uses Progressive’s patented technology to put consumers in control of their auto insurance rates. Drivers who choose to sign up for MyRate receive a device that plugs into a port in their car and measures how, how much and when the car is being driven. Cars driven less often, in less risky ways, and at less risky times of day can receive a lower premium.
Although Progressive's version monitors your actual driving habits, conservationists tend to like pay-as-you-drive plans on the theory that they encourage people to drive less. (Yes, some auto insurance is mileage-based already, but this would be much more precise.) Others view such "black box" technology as the equivalent of having Big Brother sitting in your back seat.

 From Smart Money: The trade-offs of selling your life insurance. (i.e. life settlements). Beware of unexpected taxes, the article warns, and you may not be able to find other life insurance.
Reuters reports that China, too, is trying to figure out how to expand affordable health coverage. Says a U.S. analyst re: China's effort: "You keep hearing the word `basic.'"
And grim news out of CA: A Riverside County man, the Mercury News reports, "has been sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing his wife in an effort to collect $1.3 million from life insurance policies."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Insurance news: Insurance jobs continue to decrease, lengthy NYT look at cheaper medicine, and Ford unveils inflatible seatbelts

A.M. Best (via Insurance jobs have fallen for the 12th straight month, declining by 3,400 jobs nationwide in October.

South of Seattle, the odds of severe flooding below the Howard Hanson Dam are now believed to be about 1 in 25, rather than the earlier 1 in 3. The Army Corps of Engineers and contractors have been working feverishly to strengthen a weakened dam abutment.

The Associated Press (via the Seattle Times) reports that House Democrats don't yet have the votes to pass their proposed health-system overhaul, and may push the vote back until early next week.

The New York Times editorial page takes a dim view of House Republicans' counter to the Democrat's health reform plan:
Here is the first thing you need to know: It would do almost nothing to reduce the scandalously high number of Americans who have no insurance. And it makes only a token stab at slowing the relentlessly rising costs of medical care.
The AP also has an interesting Q&A with 84-year-old Hank Greenberg, the former CEO -- during far less turbulent times -- of insurance conglomerate American International Group (AIG). From it:
This whole theory of too big to fail should be tested and examined. I don't think we've had a dialogue on that subject. It seems to me that they are very selective on who you permit to survive and who you permit to fail. And if the cost of survival is so huge, I don't see what you gain from it. We have a Chapter 11 (bankruptcy), which permits a company to declare Chapter 11, and be reorganized and go back into business again. That to me seems what we've lived with for many years and I don't see why it's not something that has been used more.
If you've got the time, take a look at this extensive NY Times Magazine story about efforts to make medicine less costly -- and it starts with an interesting revelation about the history of medine.

And here's your reward for reading this far: the Detroit Free Press reports that Ford, starting with the 2011 Ford Explorer, will start offering new inflatible seat belts on its vehicles. See the photo.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Everything but marriage" law for domestic partners is leading in the polls: What would it mean?

Referendum 71, which would uphold the state's "everything but marriage" law for domestic partners, is holding a narrow lead in voting statewide. The results won't be certified for weeks, but we've prepared some information about its effects if it's upheld.

Here are some of the critical questions:

Will my domestic partner now be covered by my health insurance?

Not automatically. The law would require your insurance company to offer you the option to cover your state registered domestic partner under your policy, but you will need to check with your insurance company to find out how to obtain this coverage for your partner. You may need to wait for an "open enrollment" period when new enrollments are allowed. These open enrollment periods generally happen at set times of the year, often in January or fall. (Note: Some employers already cover domestic partners, and have for years.)

Is my domestic partner automatically covered by my auto and home insurance?

If the law takes effect, your state registered domestic partner would be considered your family member, the same as a spouse. You would probably need to contact your insurance companies to inform them of your state registered domestic partnership. You would also need to find out by reading your policies or asking your insurance companies how your coverage applies to your registered domestic partner. For example, many auto insurance policies cover you and any family members who drive your car.

For more on these sorts of questions, see this webpage that we put together.

For a more detailed look at what the law would require from insurers, please see this FAQ for companies.

Better flood prediction in the Green River Valley

The Office of the Washington State Climatologist has two stations near the Howard Hanson Dam that report real-time precipitation. It's also going to plot current and future rainfall compared to past years.

What's next for the Pacific Northwest? According to their site, El Nino is back and we can expect a 33 percent chance of above normal temperatures. Sounds good to me. Want more fun weather facts? Click here to see which Washington city had the most rainy days in a row.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Insurance news: Avg car premium $1,655, back and forth over health reform, and more rain gauges for WA's Green River Valley

Lots of insurance news this morning:

What's the average car insurance premium? $1,655, says this report from Reuters. (The figure comes from

A new Senate analysis suggests that health insurers' oft-cited figure of 87 cents of every premium dollar being spent on medical claims is too high. From the New York Times: "Instead, as little as 66 cents of each dollar paid in premiums goes toward doctor and hospital bills, while the rest covers administrative expenses, marketing and company profits, according to the analysis."

ABC News reports on a Journal of Public Health estimate that kids without health insurance are 60 percent more likely to die than those with coverage.

In Hartford, insurance company whistleblower Wendell Potter continues to blast the industry's opposition to health insurance reform.

GA's insurance regulator has fined UnitedHealthcare and subsidiaries $750k.

Health care back and forth: GOP in House to roll out health options this week, versus Democrats say House bill cuts premiums for many.

And more back and forth: Projected costs for health reform grow (could exceed $900 billion price tag, some estimates say), while Indiana University med school professor Aaron E. Carroll offers up "A little perspective on the cost of health care reform," with this chart:

(source: Huffington Post)

In Forbes, Univ. of Chicago professor Tomas Philipson suggests that the public option is a solution looking for a problem.

And, here in Washington, the Seattle Times reports that workers are installing more rain gauges and other sensors to better predict potential flooding in the Green River Valley.

Natural disaster insurance: Do you need it?

This report, from the NY Times, suggests that the answer is probably yes.

It helps steer you through the factors to consider re: flood, earthquake, fire and hurricane coverage (is your home on bedrock? On fill? etc.) and whether your current coverage is likely to pay for such events. (Usually no.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Selling health insurance across state lines

The Senate's health reform bill includes a provision to allow the sale of health insurance across state lines. Some argue that it could increase competition and make health insurance more affordable.

The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the subject back in August with an Editorial that said, in part:

Interstate competition made the U.S. one of the world's most efficient, consumer driven markets. But health insurance is a glaring exception. When the competition caucus in Team Obama has to look for Plan B, this is it.

But if you allow for all health plans to be sold across state lines, which state is responsible for enforcing consumer protections? Are states with stronger protections, such as Washington, now forced to accept the standards of states with fewer protections? If a consumer is harmed or wants to file a complaint, do they still call their own insurance commissioner or the state where the plan is based?

Allowing plans from other states to be sold might be a good idea, but standards would need to be set or we could face a race to the bottom. Last year, the Washington state Legislature ordered our office to write a report on another part of this debate -the feasibility of forming an interstate compact to sell health insurance.

Read the full report here.