House OKs compromise

The state House has passed a compromise version of the “policyholders bill of rights” and now the bill is headed to the Senate Insurance Committee, which has killed similar post-Hurricane Katrina insurance measures.

House Bill 563 passed in a 107-7 vote Wednesday, which included all South Mississippi representatives voting for it. The measure is the lone surviving piece of Hurricane Katrina insurance legislation. Several other insurance bills, which Coast lawmakers file annually, died with a Feb. 2 deadline to clear committee. Coast lawmakers have said the insurance industry carries much influence over the Legislature, which has contributed to the bills failing in the years since Hurricane Katrina.

House Insurance Committee Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, who worked to get House Bill 563 passed out of committee, said the measure doesn’t harm the industry.

“This is a good opportunity to take up a bill that doesn’t hurt the industry, but protects homeowners,” Jones said.

The bill puts into law language from a court decision that says the burden of proof is on the insurance company to prove an exclusion in a policy applies to a claim. It also requires insurers to notify homeowners if they intend to increase the premium by 10 percent or more, by sending written notice of the increase 30 days before the renewal date, among other provisions. If the company doesn’t send notice in time, the policy renews at the same rate. The measure also says “unless based on sound actuarial principles, an insurance company may not treat a policyholder differently from other individuals of the same class and essentially the same hazard when evaluating a claim.”

Kevin Buckel of Long Beach, who lost his home to Katrina and battled with his insurance company, has been fighting for reform the last few years. As House Bill 563 faced a deadline to clear the House Insurance Committee on Feb. 2, Buckel threatened to stage a sit-in at the office of House Insurance Committee Chairman Rep. Walter Robinson, D-Bolton, but he backed off when Jones notified him the committee would take up the bill.

Buckel said Thursday he was thrilled the bill has cleared the full House and said he would begin to lobby members of the Senate Insurance Committee.

“There is no excuse why Mississippi homeowners should not have these rights,” Buckel said.

It might be a tough sell in the Senate Insurance Committee, where similar insurance reforms have died without a vote. Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Sen. Eugene S. Clarke, R-Hollandale, has said he believes the key to solving insurance problems is increasing competition to lower prices, rather than creating new regulations. Some insurance company representatives have said they believe new regulations might cause companies to leave.

Clarke has said he believes strengthening insurance regulation could be handled by the Mississippi Insurance Department.

By MICHAEL NEWSOM – mmnewsom@sunherald.com
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