The insurance industry, responding to both consumer confusion and disaffection, has opened a telephone Helpline to field all types of insurance questions and some complaints.
“We feel this is an example of industry desire to improve credibility with the American public. And we felt a need for an industrywide program. We want to be more responsive to consumer needs,” said Harvey Seymour, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, which represents property and casualty insurance companies.
The insurance industry endured a tough year in 1989, he said. California passed Proposition 103, which temporarily rolled back auto insurance rates. (The California Supreme Court since decreed that insurance companies have a right to make a reasonable profit.) Insurance was lashed in headlines ranging from “When an insurer fails,” in the New York Times in March to “Elderly urge Celeste to block increases in insurance rates” in The Plain Dealer in December.
And after shelling out $4 billion for Hurricane Hugo, the industry was hit with another $1 billion in claims from the San Francisco earthquake, Seymour said. Then Medicare catastrophic coverage was canceled and insurance companies were left scrambling again.
Increasing consumer concern and confusion were already being monitored by two insurance hot lines.
The insurance institute has operated one since 1981, “to make property-casualty insurance more understandable and offer unbiased information” said Seymour. Two years ago, the hot line received only 20,000 calls; last year, it logged about 70,000.
The Health Insurance Association of America maintained a hot line with the American Council of Life Insurance for 8 1/2 years; then went it alone after the council dropped out 1 1/2 years ago. The health insurance line has been fielding “lots of questions,” especially from older consumers, about such issues as Medicare supplemental insurance, long-term care insurance, and simply the meanings of words used in policies, said Melanie Marsh, hot line manager.
“A lot of our consumers are over 65 and may have been visited by three or four different agents trying to sell one type of policy. They call and tell us how nice the agents were, but that has nothing to do with the products being sold. They need lots of help to sort out the details,” said Marsh.
But callers often couldn’t distinguish one hot line from the other and many were frustrated when referred elsewhere, said Seymour. And the life insurance council was ready to renew hot line support.
“We felt an increasing need to provide assistance in a generic way, an increasing demand for attentiveness, in the last year,” said Henri Bersoux, spokesman for the life insurance council.
“The needs of the consumer are changing and the insurance industry is trying to adapt. Baby boomers are more concerned about loss of lifestyle than loss of life,” said Bersoux. And older policy owners are asking about cashing in insurance policies before death to avoid becoming penniless during catastrophic critical illness.
So on Jan. 1, the new insurance hot line was born to provide one-stop shopping for insurance information, and more comprehensive answers. In addition to the three major sponsors, a number of smaller insurance trade groups are supporting the hot line.
Free booklets covering answers to most-asked questions — and topics of great concern to insurers — will be sent, on request.
“And if we get a call from a consumer who is having an argument with an insurance company, we try to put the person in touch with a specific individual at the company,” said Seymour.
After Hurricane Hugo, the old insurance institute hot line quickly connected many people with their insurance company claim centers and “adjusters handled claims so promptly that many were hailed as local heros,” he said.
A sad revelation for many tenants after the hurricane, however, was that landlords do not insure tenants’ personal possessions, only buildings, he said. Tenant household insurance is vastly underused, even though it’s quite cheap, he said. While 95% of homeowners carry homeowners’ insurance, only 23% of tenants carry tenants’ insurance.