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Insurance Changes Concern Consumer Groups ; More Competitive Auto Insurance System Worries Advocates

Aug 1, 2007

By JON CHESTO

BOSTON - A coalition of consumer groups wrote to Gov. Deval Patrick and his insurance commissioner, urging them to make sure the state's move toward a more competitive auto insurance market doesn't lead to the use of socioeconomic factors to deny consumers coverage or raise their rates.

The consumer groups are concerned that market changes being overseen by Insurance Commissioner Nonnie Burnes could lead to insurers using factors such as education levels, credit scores and home ownership to determine auto insurance premiums and coverage eligibility.

The concerns are not new: Consumer advocates have argued for several years that the state could open the door to the use of socioeconomic factors if a competitive rate-setting system is introduced.

This time, the letters sent Wednesday represented a response to Burnes' controversial decision last month to shift the state's highly regulated system to a more competitive model and her changes to the way high-risk drivers are insured.

Deirdre Cummings, a consumer advocate at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said she's worried that insurers will use socioeconomic factors in their calculations, potentially taking away the ability to choose an insurer from some good drivers.

Cummings said she's pleased that Burnes has expressed skepticism about using such factors in setting auto rates, but Cummings said she would like to see a stronger statement promising that such factors won't be used in the rate-setting process.

Cummings said the consumer groups, which include MassPIRG and nine other organizations, are also worried that the state's new plan for a residual market - a system to provide coverage for motorists who insurers don't want to cover - could lead to insurers denying coverage to many good drivers. If they wind up in the high-risk pool under the new plan, the drivers would be assigned an insurer instead of picking their own.

"Even people with good driving records can be rejected," Cummings said. "I think that will be a shock for consumers."

Kimberly Haberlin, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Insurance, responded by saying that Burnes has pledged to keep consumers' interests in mind as she oversees changes in the auto insurance market.

"The commissioner has made it very clear that she will have absolutely zero tolerance for unfair, excessive and discriminatory rates," Haberlin said in a prepared statement. "The move to managed competition will in fact strengthen her ability to lower premiums and give Massachusetts drivers more choice."

Jim Harrington, executive director of the Massachusetts Insurance Federation, said the members of his industry trade group are not opposed to Burnes' reluctance to use socioeconomic factors in rate- setting.

"We want to keep the current debate focused on transitioning carefully to competition and not have the focus shift to a debate on what's appropriate underwriting criteria and what's not," Harrington said.

Jon Chesto may be reached at jchesto@ledger.com.

(c) 2007 Patriot Ledger, The; Quincy, Mass.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.



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