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July 10--The May 18 hailstorm that pummeled Mary Wanty's property was bad, but it was the blizzard of homeowner insurance challenges that brought the Billings resident to the public library Wednesday.
"It's hard to figure out," Wanty said. "I have to learn how submit documents electronically." The storm that blanketed Billings with hail larger than golf balls destroyed Wanty's roof and damaged her siding, her windows and her storage shed. And she wasn't alone in her damage or her questions about insurance.
Experts from the office of the State Commissioner of Insurance, in town Wednesday and Thursday to help with hail-related insurance problems, say Billings-area insurance claims from the May 18 storm number in the tens of thousands. Auto damage claims alone exceed 40,000. Not all insurance claims are being resolved easily.
And in Montana, when claim negotiations between insurance companies and customers turn sour, customers have the right to file a complaint with the insurance commissioner's Policy Services Bureau. The bureau's property and casualty experts work on insurance hangups free of charge. Adam Schafer, deputy commissioner of insurance, said the bureau recovers about $4 million a year for Montanans with insurance claims disputes.
State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen dispatched claims experts to Billings after it became clear that disputes would be numerous.
People with home and auto insurance questions showed up early to meet with Lindeen's staff. A sign above one of the work tables read "Hail help is here. Sign a complaint."
There are people who had been recently notified by their insurance companies that their policies were being terminated "due to hail." In other words, insurers were cutting their losses in Billings after a tornado and two significant hail events since 2010.
Companies do have the right to terminate a policy, Schafer said, and it can be difficult to get insurance elsewhere once that happens.
As property and casualty experts met one-on-one with homeowners at folding tables in the back of the room, Schafer gave an overview of what homeowners should know about their insurance.
People have a right to receive the full benefits offered in their policy, Schafer said. That means they shouldn't hold back when reporting damage. But they should also know what their policy covers. Not everything a person assumes would be covered by insurance is covered. Fencing sometimes isn't covered, Schafer said, though people assume it is.
Schafer said it's important that homeowners file their claims as soon as they can. If possible, homeowners should try to get an estimate of what the repairs will cost before the claims adjuster arrives to look at the property. They also ought to be accurate in what's reported and document everything, even phone calls. A homeowner should document the date, time and the name of the person they spoke to when speaking by phone with an insurer. Those details matter later if the Policy Services Bureau gets involved.
Property and Casualty expert Tari Nyland reminded homeowners to cash the checks for actual cash value that insurance companies usually issue early in the process. There is a misconception that cashing the check prevents a homeowner from negotiating repair costs that exceed the check's value. Those checks usually have to be cashed within a certain number of days, Nyland said, although a homeowner could ask for a new check if the original has expired.
It's also important that the insurer and the contractor agree on the scale of the needed repairs, Nyland said. If there's disagreement over the size of an area to be fixed, it might be necessary to bring another claims adjuster out to re-measure the area to be fixed.
Finally, Nyland said Montanans are entitled to replacement materials that match what's been damaged. That can be difficult if the damaged material has faded with age. The brand new material might not look the same, but if oxidation is the difference, then the new material will still be considered a match. If the original material cannot be matched with new material, then a homeowner may be entitled to having entirely new material, even in areas where storm damage was minimal or nonexistent.
Thursday, the hail help sessions will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Montana State University Billings downtown extended campus, 214 N. Broadway Ave. and from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Billings Heights at Country Inn and Suites, 231 Main St.
People with insurance questions are asked to bring any paperwork related to their claim, including their insurance policy, if possible, and repair receipts.
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