Blame Shifting Begins Over Costlier Auto Insurance in Wisconsin

By | October 27, 2009

As insurance companies begin mailing notices to Wisconsin customers telling them that their premiums are likely to increase soon, state politicians are scrambling to avoid the blame.

The first changes expected to affect premiums start Nov. 1 with more coming next year when all motorists must carry liability insurance. The minimum levels of coverage are also increasing.

Terry Scheller, 47, of Nichols recently received notice that coverage for his three vehicles was increasing $231.

“I think it’s awful,” Scheller said. “How much more can people afford? Times are tough. Guess who’s paying for it? People like me with clean driving records.”

The new insurance requirements were approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature earlier this year.

But Democrats aren’t willing to accept blame for any higher premiums.

Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna, said in an Oct. 7 letter to a constituent who inquired about higher premiums that “any premium increases are due to the business decisions of insurance providers rather than any action taken by the Legislature.”

That’s the same thing he told Scheller when he called to complain.

“I’m not buying it from Mr. Nelson,” Scheller said. “I believe it’s the state law. That’s what I’m hearing from two different agents.”

Nelson said in an interview that insurance companies were “simply using the Legislature as an excuse to raise premiums and generate more profit.”

Nelson’s assertion is “flat out wrong,” said Andy J. Franken, president of the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance. The alliance represents insurance companies and spent more than $500,000 lobbying against the changes passed by the Legislature.

Franken said at its most basic level, the Legislature increased the amount of coverage people will have to carry and it’s “simple economics” to see that will result in higher premiums.

“Everyone understands if you buy more of something, it costs more money,” Franken said.

Both the insurance industry and state regulators agree that premiums will go up because of the changes. But they may not go up for all policy holders and how much they increase depends on several factors.

The state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance did not prepare, and does not intend to prepare, an analysis of what impact the changes approved by the Legislature will have on premiums.

However, premiums in general are expected to go up for consumers who purchased only the minimum limits because of the changes, said OCI spokesman Jim Guidry.

Determining how much, or what the impact would be on an individual policy holder, is difficult because some consumers purchased more than the minimum limits, Guidry said. Also, there are more than 200 insurance companies competing with one another and a variety of other factors, including driving record and past claims experience, affect premiums, he said.

“People who have higher limits that are at or higher than the new mandated amounts, will not be impacted,” said Ken Muth, a spokesman for American Family Insurance, which is based in Madison. “It’s going to depend on what the coverages are now and the additional coverages you’ll have to take on. … It may go up significantly for some.”

American Family is sending out letters to policy holders warning them about increases.

“Every insurance company in the state will be forced to charge more as a result of this legislation,” one letter sent by American Family said. American Family is the largest auto insurer in Wisconsin.

Nelson called American Family’s letter blaming the Legislature for higher premiums “disingenuous and shameful.”

Republicans see an opportunity to attack Democrats as policy holders getting notices of increases are looking for someone to blame.

“Obviously this is no mystery. We knew when this policy was put in it was going to raise insurance rates,” said Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon. “I think everybody’s bill will increase, it’s just a matter of how much.”

Insurance companies, including American Family, fought against the changes but were unable to overcome support from Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, who signed them into law.

Supporters, included trial attorneys, argued that because the current minimum coverage levels haven’t increased in 29 years they don’t take into account current costs.

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