By JEFF AMY, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — Auto insurance costs have become the central issue in the election for Georgia’s next insurance commissioner.
John King, the Republican incumbent appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp, says he’s looking for ways to protect consumers but also strike a balance to make sure insurers don’t flee the state.
Democrat Janice Laws Robinson, also her party’s nominee in 2018, is more direct, saying King’s efforts have been ineffective and she will do a better job of stopping Georgia drivers from paying increasing premiums.
It’s a sharp contrast in the downballot race to be Georgia’s insurance regulator. The office is also in charge of investigating fires and regulating building safety.
Official figures for Georgia’s insurance market run years behind, but the state had the 10th most expensive average premiums in 2019, according to the Insurance Information Institute, with an average premium of $1,259.49, up from 13th most expensive in 2017. The question burst into public view in August when King issued a statement declaring himself “angry and disappointed” that Allstate Corp. had chosen to raise rates by 40% in a single year.
The statement highlighted that since 2008, Georgia has allowed insurers to set most auto rates without advance approval from the commissioner.
King said that despite his lack of formal power, most companies still seek approval and that his office gets a chance to examine loss figures and try to bargain rates down.
“No other insurance company has gotten the rate increase that they’ve wanted,” King told The Associated Press. “We negotiated it because they understand we have to be able to take care of Georgians.”
But at the same time, King said some rate increases are appropriate, saying many insurers are losing money on policies.
“My primary role is to be the consumer advocate, to protect consumers, while at the same time not wreck the industry in the process.”
King said he wants to tighten the provision that Allstate used to raise rates, but Robinson said that other parts of state law still give the commissioner the power to challenge rate increases.
“The insurance commissioner is not doing the job period,” Robinson told a gathering of insurance agents in August. “The last three insurance commissioners have sat back every single time and said ‘There is nothing we can do.’ That’s not true. There is something we can do.”
King was police in Doraville when Kemp appointed him after former Commissioner Jim Beck was indicted in 2019. The office became King’s permanently after Beck was convicted in 2021 of stealing more than $2.5 million from the state-chartered insurer of last resort. Also a general in the Georgia National Guard, King is Georgia’s first Hispanic statewide official, having been born in Mexico.
King said that he has successfully cleaned up an office that was “antiquated” and beset by “cronyism” and “scandal.” He also highlights expanded efforts to investigate insurance fraud and improved response time for arson investigators statewide
Robinson is an insurance broker from Coweta County. Born in Jamaica, she became involved in Democratic politics and first sought the statewide office in 2018, losing to Beck.
She pledges more aggressive regulation of how insurers set rates and choose to offer coverage, saying that her experience as an insurance agent showed her insurers use data in a way that may discriminate against nonwhite people, poor people, older people, military veterans and LGBTQ people.
King said some of the behavior that Robinson alleges is already illegal under state law and that his office is on guard against it, suggesting that Robinson is misinformed.
King supports the plans of Kemp, his political patron, to sell federally subsidized individual health insurance policies through private brokers, instead of the federal marketplace used now under the Affordable Care Act. Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration has been seeking to block the plan.
Robinson declined to comment on her position on that plan. She told attendees at the state Democratic Party convention that she would support efforts to expand the state-federal Medicaid program to cover all adults and to try to expand the number of companies that offer policies on the federal marketplace. Most Georgia counties now have at least three insurers offering plans, federal data shows. A handful of counties mostly in southeast Georgia only have two, while three counties in and around Vidalia only have one.
King has raised $1.18 million through Sept. 30 for his election bid, including contributions from a number of insurance interests. Robinson has raised $123,000.
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