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September 17, 2015

A Commissioner’s View of Innovation

Summary:

Conventional wisdom says regulators stifle innovation. The Iowa insurance commissioner explains how things look from his seat.

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There’s a thundering herd running through Iowa this year — and not just the herd of presidential candidates. There also is a herd of technological innovators driving considerable change in insurance.

Many people find it intriguing that technology innovators are coming through Iowa, but Iowa is an insurance state and home to some of the largest insurance companies in the U.S. Iowa also is home to niche companies that price out very specific risks to targeted markets.

In my role as Iowa’s insurance commissioner, I’ve met with many entrepreneurs whose ideas will improve, enhance and create value for insurance companies and consumers. In these meetings, I hear a fairly consistent and constant theme: State insurance regulators are a major burden for entrepreneurs and, in turn, for their ideas for innovation.

However, when I walk them through what regulators do and provide them a copy of the Iowa insurance statutes and regulations that empower my office, I’ve found that most haven’t read even one word of insurance law before working on an idea or creating a product or service.

To be clear, I don’t believe I stand in the way of innovation. On the contrary, I am very supportive of innovation.

But my fellow regulators and I do have an important job — consumer protection. Insurance is one of the most regulated industries in the nation because, for the insurance system to work, when things go wrong and a consumer needs to make an insurance claim the funds to pay the claim must be available.

The days on which people file insurance claims may be the worst days in their lives, and they may be very vulnerable. Perhaps a loved one passed away; a home is destroyed; an emergency room visit or major surgery is needed; someone may be entering a long-term care facility; a car is totaled; or injuries are preventing a return to work. Insurance is a product we buy but really hope we never use. However, when we need to use it, we want the company to have the financial resources to pay the claim. It’s our job as regulators to make sure the companies in our states are financially strong enough to pay claims in a timely fashion.

Insurance is regulated at the state and territorial level by 56 commissioners, superintendents or directors. The state-based regulatory system has served consumers well for more than 150 years and demonstrated extreme resilience in the last financial crisis. My fellow commissioners and I are public officials either elected or appointed to our respective posts. We are responsible and accessible to the citizens of our states or territories.

However, I do understand that complying with the laws of all the states, District of Columbia and territories poses challenges to entrepreneurs. In recognition of this, state regulators have worked together to help minimize differences between states through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, thereby creating a more nationally uniform framework of insurance regulation while recognizing local markets and maintaining power in the hands of the states.

The job of an insurance regulator sounds easy. We exist to enforce the state’s laws, to make sure that companies and agents follow that law and to ensure that companies domiciled in our state are in financial position to pay claims when required. As with many things, the duties of regulators are more difficult than they appear. Regulators need to have great knowledge of multiple lines of insurance, technological advances, financial matters and marketing practices. In reality, the execution of our job duties in enforcing our state’s laws may at times cause friction with some innovative ideas.

As I stated, I don’t believe that I or my fellow regulators stand in the way of innovation. I believe that a robust and competitive market that delivers value to the consumer is one of the best forms of consumer protection. However, our insurance laws are also designed to make sure that insurance companies stay in the market and keep the promises that they have made to their customers when the products were originally sold.

In executing my duties as commissioner, I pay a great deal of attention to innovation and developments. I personally spend time with entrepreneurs, investors and others to learn about new trends and ideas. My commitment to enforcing state laws, combined with the laser focus on protecting consumers, requires keeping abreast of innovation.

My office addresses more than 6,000 consumers’ inquiries and complaints every year. People on my staff address issues quickly and care deeply about their roles in helping Iowans. I’ve learned in my nearly three years as commissioner that many consumers don’t understand the insurance they own. They may have relied on an agent, or purchased insurance coverage on their own, hoping it will suit their needs. However, when life happens and an insurance claim needs to be made, consumers may discover the coverage they purchased did not suit their needs. For instance, some people may discover their health plan network doesn’t have healthcare providers near their home. Others may discover too late that certain items lost in a fire were not covered under their homeowners’ policy. Some consumers may discover that the very complex product that they bought simply did not measure up to their expectations.

Having consumers be comfortable with making a purchase and not understanding what they purchased is a culture we need to change. Some consumers desire to simply establish a relationship with an insurance agent or securities agent they feel they can trust, schedule automatic withdrawals from their bank account to be invested or submit their premiums for their insurance products as required so they can ultimately focus their attention on all the other activities that occupy our busy lives. In essence, they forget that they purchased the coverage, and, while it may have been the right purchase at that time, it may not fully suit their needs now or when they need to file a claim.

Insurance regulators and the insurance industry need to encourage consumers to learn more about their coverage needs and the insurance they actually purchase. Innovation that leads to personalizing insurance and better consumer understanding is a good thing. Innovation that increases speed-to-market, enables better policyholder relations through in-force management and provides more value to the consumer is a good thing. However, all that innovation must comply with our state’s laws.

To that end, I’ve met with several entrepreneurs to highlight issues that would arise with certain proposed business models. I enjoy discussing ideas about our industry and sharing Iowa’s perspective. Innovation can help consumers, and it’s my hope that entrepreneurs continue to work with regulators to develop new products and services. This collaboration helps both the regulators and the entrepreneurs and has led to some very positive and healthy dialogue in Iowa.

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About the Author

Nick Gerhart served as insurance commissioner of the state of Iowa from Feb. 1, 2013 to January, 2017. Gerhart served on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) executive committee, life and annuity committee, financial condition committee and international committee. In addition, Gerhart was a board member of the National Insurance Producer Registry (NIPR).

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