Mass. Allows Rates and Commissions of 2 Largest Auto Insurers

By | January 28, 2008

The two largest auto insurance writers in Massachusetts have been given the green light to use the rates they filed for 2008 in rulings that characterize the state attorney general’s objections as “irrelevant” in the state’s new competitive marketplace.

The rulings also preserve contingent commissions for agents.

Massachusetts Insurance Commissioner Nonnie Burnes has ruled in favor of Commerce Insurance and Safety Insurance over the protests of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose lawyers had tried to persuade Burnes that items contained in the two insurers’ rate filings led to rates that were excessive even though they both filed for overall decreases.

The rulings mean the two insurers may proceed to market using their filings, which called for an average rate decrease of 8.1 percent by Commerce and an average 6.3 percent cut by Safety.

Commerce is the largest auto insurer with 31.6 percent market share, while Safety ranks second with 11.2 percent.

In declining to disapprove the insurers’ rate filings, Burnes also handed independent agents’ a victory by upholding the inclusion of contingent commissions as part of the rate filings. Coakley’s team had argued that contingent commissions should not have been part of the rates.

Until this year, auto insurers had their rates fixed and established by the insurance commissioner. But beginning in April, 2008, insurers are being allowed to compete using their own rates under a new managed competition system. Insurers file individual rates which become effective unless the commissioner disapproves them.

The attorney general has the right to trigger rate hearings on individual insurer rate filings she deems excessive, which Coakley did in the cases of Commerce and Safety, but the final decisions rest with the commissioner.

Coakley objected to provisions for profit, expenses including contingent commissions, and loss trends used by the two insurers in their rates.

But Burnes dismissed the AG’s entire analysis, ruling in favor of the insurers on each provision. Burnes suggested that while the AG’s approach might have worked under the previous fix-and-establish system, it was irrelevant under the new managed competition system and that the AG “fails to recognize” that the rules have changed.

Burnes said that while the attorney general wants to challenge individual provisions of rates, as was done under the previous system, a competitive system requires a broader view.

“I do not set the rates under c. 175E [the rate statute]. My authority is limited strictly to disapproving a rate or, under very limited circumstances set forth in the statute, approving it. I look at the proposed overall rates generated by the rate filing viewed as a whole in determining whether a company’s proposed rates are excessive for the insurance provided,” Burnes wrote.

She further explained how her approach under managed competition differs from that taken in the past in her discussion of the Commerce profit provision:.

“It is not my task to look at aggregate industrywide data for the purpose of developing an underwriting profits provision that reasonably reflects the average financial needs of a mythical ‘Every Company,’ but is specific to none.”

Her analyses of the expense and loss trends provision used similar language.

The attorney general had attacked the inclusion of contingent commissions for agents as “creating serious potential conflicts of interest and leading to anticompetitive effects such as the steering of business away from more cost effective carriers.” Coakley’s lawyers had also argued that because decisions fixing and establishing rates did not allow them to be included, contingent commissions should continue to be rejected in a competitive environment.

But Burnes said that such past decisions are immaterial to the current situation and since such commissions are legal, if insurers decide they want to pay them in a competitive market, they can.

“Contingent commissions now are one basis for legitimate competition in the industry. Indeed, that is why the Division’s rate filing instructions explicitly provide for the possibility of such an expense. It is neither my role, nor the role of the Attorney General, to decide what expenses a company should incur in a competitive insurance market provided no such expenses violate the law. Companies that unwisely spend money will enjoy less success in the market, and this experience alone will alter future conduct,” Burnes wrote.

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