The Texas agency responsible for regulating insurance business in the state has been on a mission to modernize, increase efficiency, strengthen consumer protections and generally make the organization more user-friendly.
With those goals in mind, the Texas Department of Insurance, led by Commissioner Kent Sullivan, in the past year has undertaken an effort to update the agency’s insurance professions licensing processes and revamp the department’s consumer call center. Both of those areas of the state agency were plagued with inefficiencies and extremely slow response times, problems that were heightened and exposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.
Online Licensing System
The commissioner said the antiquated licensing system in place at the department was not keeping pace with current needs, especially following the extreme weather events that routinely hammer the state. Following Hurricane Harvey, for example, license applications “spiked about 50% and we had both a very limited capacity to process them. … We had a process that was still disproportionately paper driven,” Sullivan said.
It was obvious that changes needed to be made and they have been, Sullivan said. “We moved almost all of the applications online. Eventually, essentially, they’ll all be online, but almost all are now. We’ve got a process where now, I believe, you can expect to get turn around if you’re credentialed and all the information is in order, you’ll get your license in less than a week.”
Previously, it might have taken six or eight weeks for an applicant to receive their license, depending on the nature of the application.
“Of course, immediately following a hurricane a lot of the licenses have some degree of urgency attached to them. That was a situation that we felt was unacceptable and we’ve really turned it around,” Sullivan said.
Call Center Wait Times Reduced
Sullivan said he found there were similar timing issues entrenched in the department’s call center. The call center operation was “static,” he said. Callers routinely had to wait 30 or 45 minutes to get their calls answered.
“Immediately after Hurricane Harvey you might have waited upwards of an hour to get through to somebody, which again, was completely unacceptable,” Sullivan said.
The agency has revamped the call center, bringing in outside, private sector expertise and redesigning the overall process of communicating with the department.
“If you have a simple question, we try to drive you to the most efficient and least-cost answer provider, which can include our website, because our website now is very user friendly, has a lot of FAQs available. … We get those folks out of the queue on the call center line and have them go where they can very quickly access the answer to their question,” he said.
Sullivan said he was confident that callers no longer have to wait 45 minutes for someone to pick up. “I say this with a certain amount of danger … I think that our average right now is that your call gets picked up in less than two minutes. On a good day it could be less than one minute. … It’s a dramatically different consumer experience.”
He acknowledged there is more to be done with the agency’s modernization efforts. But, Sullivan added, I do think this is the direction that government needs to go. I think it’s the direction that we, as insurance regulators, need to go. To the extent that we can drive the conversation and the focus in that direction, it’s something we ought to be doing and we’re going to try.”
Keeping it Simple
The commissioner also wants the insurance industry to clean up its language. He has a problem with insurance industry jargon that obscures rather than informs and confuses rather than clarifies. In short, Sullivan is a plain language proponent who is urging the industry to “keep it simple.”
That’s because words matter — to consumers, regulators, judges and juries, Sullivan said. “If you wanted to increase the number of consumer complaints you have and increase the amount of litigation you have, you’d deliver your product in a black box, in a largely indecipherable fashion. The end result would be unhappy consumers; I think the industry has had its share of that.”
It’s not just insurers that fall short of the “keep it simple” principle. Regulators and consumer advocates sometimes fall into the industry jargon trap, as well. So, at Sullivan’s direction, the Texas Department of Insurance rolled out its own plain language initiative last year, revising its website to simplify and clarify the information it provides to consumers, recruiting volunteers to review information before it is published, and urging insurers to stick to plain language in their policies and notices to consumers.
“I think there’s no better form of consumer protection than having a consumer who is adequately informed about the product that they’re considering and ultimately buying. … Insurance presents very unique issues in that regard. I’ve often analogized this to the classic black box, where for the most part, consumers deal with a product that is largely opaque in terms of their ability to really navigate it and understand it,” Sullivan told Insurance Journal.
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