May 22, 2010 al.com
Candidates discuss coastal insurance crisis at forum
By Kim Lanier
SPANISH FORT, Ala. -- More than 200 people turned out at the Gathering Place in Spanish Fort Saturday evening to hear six of the nine gubernatorial candidates discuss south Alabama's skyrocketing homeowners insurance rates.
The forum was hosted by the Christian Coalition of Alabama and Homeowners Hurricane Insurance Initiative. Participating candidates included Robert Bentley, Bradley Byrne, Bill Johnson, Roy Moore, James Potts and Charles Taylor.
"This is important to all of us," coalition chairman Randy Brinson told the Press-Register.
Because coastal counties play such a large role in the state's economy, what bodes badly for residents here also is bad for the state's economy, he said.
"This is a moral issue. This isn't about people with condos on the beach. Here is a problem where average people are in danger of losing their homes" because they can't afford homeowners insurance, he said.
Key points among the candidates were the need for the state Department of Insurance to be able to collect specific data from insurance companies on such things as premiums, payouts, losses and profits, and where the money goes. Candidates also touched on the need for insurance commissioners to remain at arm's length with insurance companies rather than coming from their ranks, and forming a coalition with other coastal state governors that can go up against the federal government and the insurers.
Both the coalition and HHII are working to improve transparency within the insurance department on those issues, Brinson said.
"It's so important that the next governor have a little more sympathy for insurance consumers," said Al Carlson of HHII.
In addition to increasing transparency, Brinson said the two groups' goals include the creation of a board within the Department of Insurance to advocate on behalf of consumers, and the creation of tax credits for the poor and disaster savings accounts.
While insurance companies do have legitimate concerns, policy premiums are out of control, he said. Stan Virden, who is with HHII and on the steering board of All Churches Together (ACT) II,, said money going into premiums is not being spent in the community.
When insurance companies request a rate increase, there's no way the Department of Insurance can ascertain truly whether it is needed before approving it, Virden said. Alabama collects data only for the entire state, whereas other states, such as Mississippi, collect data and break it down by ZIP code.
"Today, we pay many times the state average," he said.
He accused insurance companies of "cherry-picking" whom they write policies for and said state officials exert no muscle over companies selling policies in the state.
He said information is needed on whether insurance writers are treating south Alabama unfairly and the governor needs to make sure that happens.
Candidates told the crowd the insurance crisis is beginning to spread farther and farther northward through the state and that constituents there need to realize it's not just a problem for Mobile and Baldwin counties.
The candidates also signed covenants affirming that, if elected governor, they will do what they said they would do regarding the insurance crisis.
Audience members were also asked sign covenants stating they would work for the best solution possible to the problem.
Dan Hansen, director of HHII and a member of ACT-II, said he was pleased with Saturday's turnout and with the candidates' responses.
"Some showed a little bit of understanding of the nature of the problem," he said.
Similar forums are planned with legislative candidates, Hansen said.