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New law hinders car insurance oversight

POSTED: November 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Brian Rogers works on the damaged front end of a 2006 Kia on Tuesday afternoon at Lester's Paint and Body on Browns Bridge Road. Auto insurance rates are increasing across the country. On Oct. 1, a new law went into effect, restricting the insurance commissioner's ability to regulate car insurance rates.

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Thanks to the gas crisis, during the first nine months of 2008, Americans drove about 62 billion fewer miles than they did during the same period last year.

Fewer miles driven means fewer accidents. So insurance rates should be going down, right?

Instead, rates are up an average of 7 percent nationwide. In Georgia, the average lowest premium rate has increased during each of the first three quarters this year.

And now, a change in Georgia law could push rates up further. On Oct. 1, Senate Bill 276 went into effect, eliminating the state insurance commissioner’s power to give "prior approval" to rate increases.

Now, automobile insurance companies can simply announce a rate change to the Georgia Department of Insurance, and the new rate automatically is approved.

"You’re basically left up to the mercy of the insurance companies," said Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine.

He said SB 276 was supported by insurance industry lobbyists and "went through the legislature with no discussion."

Oxendine doesn’t believe consumers will see any benefit from the new law.

"Some people say this will increase competition, but competition won’t change because all the major insurance companies are already in Georgia," he said. "The best you could hope for is that rates will stay the same. There’s no evidence that they would ever go down."

Shane Robinson, spokesman for Allstate Insurance in Georgia, said sometimes insurers do request lower rates.

"I think (the new law) has been unfairly portrayed as an excuse for insurance companies to raise rates," he said, noting that Allstate has not recently asked for a rate increase.

"But (the law) gives us the ability to respond to the marketplace quicker."

Oxendine said it’s not as if the insurance companies were having to fight through layers of red tape.

"I routinely approved rate increases, but I made sure they were justified," he said. "I looked at the company’s losses and claims. I looked at whether they had any lavish expenses. We tried to keep them honest. Now, they won’t have anyone looking over their shoulder."

Allison Wall, executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group, said some insurance companies invested heavily in the stock market and may have lost revenue from the economic downturn.

"They pass those losses on to consumers," she said.

But insurance customers are hurting financially, too, and Wall believes the last thing they need is another rate increase. "The timing for consumers is just horrible," she said.

They can’t simply choose not to buy insurance. In Georgia, it’s illegal to drive a vehicle if you’re uninsured.

SB 276 did preserve one requirement: All insurance companies must offer an affordable rate on the minimum amount of coverage required by law.

"But if you buy even one dollar’s worth of coverage beyond the minimum, that rate doesn’t apply," said Oxendine. "About 95 percent of Georgians buy more than the minimum."

Wayne Whitaker, information specialist with the Georgia Department of Insurance, said the minimum coverage requirement is known as the "25-50-25" rule.

"You have to have liability coverage for the people you hurt (in a car accident), not for yourself," he said. "That’s $25,000 for the first person injured, or a total of $50,000 for everyone in the other vehicle. And then $25,000 for damage to the other guy’s car."

But with the high cost of medical care, a victim’s expenses easily can exceed that minimum amount of coverage. And the driver who was at fault is responsible for paying the balance.

"That’s why most people buy more than the minimum, to protect their assets," said Oxendine.

The trick, for consumers, is to buy enough insurance to cover costs, but not more than they can afford. Insurance companies, on the other hand, need to spend enough to cover policyholders’ claims, but not so much that their business becomes unprofitable.

To achieve that balance, Robinson said, insurers must have the freedom to adjust their rates.

"Sometimes we raise rates in one area of the state, but lower rates in another area, based on our loss experience," he said. "We’ve become much more sophisticated in risk assessment. Our ability to make money depends on our ability to assess risk adequately. That’s how we make our profit, not by investing in stocks."

Dick Luedke, spokesman for State Farm, said his company’s overall average rate has decreased about 10 percent in the past five years, partly because of better safety features on cars.

He said many factors are considered when setting rates. "We look at rising costs of labor, parts, medical care and the cost of the car itself if it gets stolen," he said. "And we also look at our expenses, what it costs to operate an insurance company."

Gambling on the stock market, Luedke said, is not a direct cost of doing business. But he acknowledged that for some companies, the market slump has been a factor in setting premium rates.

"It would not be accurate for me to say investment results have no impact," he said. "Investment revenue is not totally divorced from this. But for State Farm, it’s a pretty small factor."

Wall said it’s too early to gauge the long-term effect of SB 276, but she’s worried that insurance rates will continue to rise.

"I have a lot of concern, with the national trend that Georgia seems to be a part of, and with the way the economy is going and what has happened with the stock market, that we will in fact see rates increase next year as a result of all these things," Wall said. "And the commissioner’s hands are tied, in large part, from doing anything about it."

But she said consumers should try to take matters into their own hands by shopping around for the best rates. Georgia law says once an insurance company announces a rate increase, customers have 45 days to look for a new policy before that rate goes into effect.

"Take advantage of that 45-day shopping-around period," said Wall. "The Internet is a fantastic tool to help you find the adequate coverage you need at a price you can afford. I think that’s the No. 1 message that needs to be out there for consumers."



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