Small Reform Groups Along U.S. Coast Take On Industry Goliaths
|By Tony Bartelme, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
They heard stories about drainage problems and drugs, but to their surprise, one concern generated the most anger and fear: "We realized in a relatively short time that the pressing issue was homeowner's insurance," Kurtz said.
Those living-room conversations eventually led the creation of a church-based insurance reform group, rallies, public hearings and a new
What happened in this small town along the
Spurred by rising premiums and tens of thousands of policy cancellations, a diverse collection of grass roots groups from
Their goal is to level what they say is a playing field tilted in favor of insurance Goliaths.
"These groups have a tremendous amount of passion and dedication," said
Every year, the U.S. insurance industry collects about
All this money plays a vital role in managing the inevitable personal and community catastrophes that happen in any complex society.
Asked about the growth of grass roots insurance reform movements,
He declined to discuss whether he believes the playing field favors insurers over consumers, saying that elected officials should address questions about such concerns.
Many of these insurance-reform groups sprang up in response to tectonic shifts in the insurance market during the past decade that activists say are poorly understood outside the industry.
Some shifts began in the early and mid-2000s when computer models predicted higher losses from hurricanes. Partly because of these new calculations, insurers such as
In the past five years, 14 smaller insurance companies moved into
Meanwhile, rates on the coast continue to rise, and
Amid these changes, small groups began to fight back.
Huge learning curve
She and a group of mostly retired residents have since taken bus trips to
Among other things, her group contends that insurers overstate the risks of hurricanes in
The biggest challenge: "There's a huge learning curve when it comes to insurance," she said. This helps insurance companies and hurts consumers. "Legislators don't have time to learn about this stuff, so what's the first thing they do? They go to an insurance lobbyist, who gives them the same canned stories."
Fifteen hundred miles south,
"I walked into the Nationwide trailer five days after the storm, and the first words out of the guy's mouth were, 'Your claim is going to be denied.'" Buckel's home wasn't in a flood zone but was built on a slab. "I had an eyewitness who saw the hotel go down across the street long before the water got there, but there were these blanket denials to homes built on slabs," he said.
"I remember the way it affected my elderly neighbors and the poor, seeing these people devastated by the storm and a second time when the insurance company bailed out on them. I refused to let that go," Buckel said.
Since then he built a website and pushed legislators to pass a "homeowner's bill of rights" that would make it more difficult for insurance companies to deny claims without sufficient proof. He said lobbyists fought back last year after it passed one house of the legislature. "But I'm going back with both barrels loaded."
He tracked down meteorologists and high-level insurance executives and concluded that home-insurance rates didn't properly reflect the area's hurricane vulnerability.
He made the rounds at local civic groups and eventually formed the
"We think we can make a difference that could potentially save homeowners in
The group organized meetings that drew hundreds of angry residents; ministers grabbed front seats in public hearings. The organization's most recent success was a push for a state "clarity bill" that forces insurers to supply data on claim payments and premiums by ZIP code.
The state will create a database that could identify whether residents in some areas of the state are getting soaked by high premiums. "The industry swears it's losing its shirt, but let's see the figures."
Other insurance-reform groups have popped up, including NC20 in eastern
Some have agendas that might conflict, making it difficult to create larger coalitions with the kind of muscle to take on an insurance lobby that poured
Ferguson's group in
But most of the groups share feelings that something is broken. Kurtz, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, said she never expected the insurance issue to be so emotional and complex. To her and others, insurance reform is about social justice.
Non-renewal notices are a form of betrayal bordering on robbery, she said, especially when a customer pays premiums for decades without claims and suddenly gets a notice from an insurance company that it is walking away.
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