• WisBusiness

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Truth-in-auto-insurance provisions protect consumers


By Mark Thomsen
There is no question that as a state and a country we are facing some serious financial issues right now. Between losses in retirement savings, home values, jobs and income, it has never been more important for people to make sure their remaining assets are protected. Gov. Jim Doyle has taken an important stand to protect consumers in his proposed state budget by including a number of automobile insurance reforms. These "Truth in Auto Insurance" provisions will make sure consumers have adequate coverage to protect them from the real costs they could face if they are in a serious accident and to make sure that people get what they are paying for in their policy.

Not only do these changes make real improvements for consumers, they make automobile insurance work better for policyholders. It also helps control health care costs and saves taxpayers money too. Let me explain.

When a person is involved in an automobile accident and suffers injuries resulting in medical expenses, lost wages and other damages, these are real costs. If an automobile insurance company denies payment or pays an insufficient amount to cover these costs they don't simply go away. Once the insurance company takes the position that it is somebody else's problem, whose problem does it become?

If you have health insurance some of these costs are picked up here. The result is that you will see higher health care costs in the future. If you are working for a small business everyone in your health care pool gets to pay higher costs too. But health insurance often doesn't cover all the real costs so the injured party is often stuck with a big bill to pay. I bet it is no surprise that a recent Harvard study showed that about 50 percent of bankruptcies are a result of medical expenses.

Far too often the buck doesn't really stop until it hits the taxpayer. In many cases medical assistance and programs like SeniorCare or BadgerCare foot the bill for these unpaid insurance claims. Once again the automobile insurance companies don't really care who pays as long as it's not them.

The governor has proposed raising the minimum limits for auto insurance, which were set in 1982, to levels that reflect the real costs today. While our research shows this may cause a very modest increase in policy prices for the 20 percent of the policyholders that carry only the minimum required coverage, the resulting affect on health care costs and taxpayer savings will save us all money.

Since Wisconsin is one of only two states that does not make auto insurance mandatory, it is unfortunately those who buy automobile insurance that must bear the burden of personal responsibility for everyone.

Claims by the industry that prices will increase dramatically don't seem to match their other statistics where they try to say that very few people file claims for more than the current minimum level. Unfortunately, as is far too often the case it is difficult to know if and when they are telling us the truth.

The provisions included in Governor Doyle's budget go a long way in clarifying a number of other provisions as well and help bring back some honesty and fairness for policyholders and taxpayers alike. People deserve to get what they pay for when they purchase automobile insurance and to be told the truth about the coverage. The Truth in Auto Insurance provisions will protect policyholders and taxpayers, who certainly deserve our protection in these tough economic times if they are injured in an automobile accident. And taxpayers won't get stuck with the bill.

-- Thomsen is president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice, the state's largest voluntary bar organization defending the civil justice system.

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