Insurers concerned about new commish

by Roberto Ceniceros, Business Insurance

Industry sources tell me insurers are worried about Dave Jones, who became California’s insurance commissioner on Jan. 3.

Insurers should be concerned.

The new commissioner has much more of a consumer bent than predecessor Steve Poizner. During the campaign leading up to his election in November, insurers poured money into a California Chamber of Commerce fund that aimed to help Commissioner Jones opponent, Republican Mike Villines.

Mr. Poizner occasionally irked insurers during his watch, but he wasn’t an unabashed consumer advocate.

A Sacramento Bee story about Commissioner Jones’ said his election ‘represented a big political loss for the insurance industry,’ and that Commissioner Jones had spent his time as a state assemblyman before running for commissioner by ‘taking insurers to task and pushing bills to tighten regulation.’

A list of supporters for the commissioner’s campaign shows the Democrat garnered endorsements from organizations such as the Consumer Federation of California, the California Federation of Teachers, the Sierra Club and John Garamendi, who is known for his battles with insurers on behalf of consumers when he twice served as California insurance commissioner.

Those are not people to which insurers typically buddy up.

On his inauguration day, Commissioner Jones signed an emergency regulation that would require health insurers to devote 80% of their individual-market premiums to claims.

The order is similar to a mandate in the new national health care law, which requires an 80% medical loss ratio for the individual and small-group employer markets and 85% for large-group market. In a statement, Commissioner Jones said he has ‘the legal authority to enforce in California the new federal 80% MLR for the individual health insurance market, even if Congress prevents the federal Department of Health and Human Services from enforcing it.’

As the Insurance Brokers & Agents of the West said in a news item about Commissioner Jones’ emergency regulation, he ‘wasted no time establishing the tenor of his administration.’

But the insurance commissioner is supposed to look out for consumers who don’t have the sophistication of insurers. Consumers may get an extra dose of protections from Commissioner Jones.

He is a former legal aid lawyer and served in President Bill Clinton’s administration as special assistant and counsel to then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

But he also has said he wants to encourage a vibrant insurance market in California.

He is apparently smart enough to know that doing so means he can’t scare insurers out of the state.

Commissioner Jones is a graduate of DePauw University, Harvard Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The Assn. of California Insurance Cos. must see some signs of hope.

In a congratulatory an-nounce-ment on the commissioner’s swearing-in, ACIC said that it looks forward to working with him on containing workers compensation costs and in maintaining a competitive insurance market.

‘Commissioner Jones has expressed his support for speeding regulatory approval of insurance products and fostering a viable workers compensation insurance market,’ ACIC said in its announcement.

Still, with someone that the California Consumer Federation named their 2008 Consumer Champion sitting in the insurance commissioner’s office, you know insurers are concerned.