Lawmakers See Expanded Role for Calif. Insurance Commissioner

By | May 14, 2010

Two state lawmakers are the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for California insurance commissioner, the statewide office responsible for regulating insurers at a time of great change and heightened scrutiny for health care coverage.

Assemblymen Dave Jones of Sacramento and Hector De La Torre of South Gate are campaigning as consumer-protection crusaders who will go on the offense against insurance giants.

The winner in the June 8 primary is likely to face Republican Mike Villines, a former Assembly minority leader from a Fresno-area district.

While much of the primary season has been focused on the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, the winner of the insurance commissioner race will have broad influence over consumers’ lives. The commissioner will play a pivotal role in monitoring how the new federal health care reform law is implemented and investigating insurance companies such as Anthem Blue Cross. The Los Angeles-based insurer withdrew its plans for rate hikes by as much as 39 percent on its California customers after an independent audit determined the company’s proposal was based on flawed data.

The insurance commissioner’s job is relatively new. It was created in 1988 under Proposition 103 to review rate changes for many types of insurance.

The elected position oversees about 1,200 state employees and a budget of $174 million, although the governor has proposed less in his latest budget.

The current insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner, is not seeking a second term as he tries for the GOP nomination for governor.

Both Democratic candidates have spoken against insurance rate hikes. During a legislative committee hearing chaired by Jones, the two asked Anthem Blue Cross executives how they could justify the proposed hikes.

In a made-for-TV line, Jones asked Anthem president Leslie Margolin, “Have you no shame?”

Jones, 48, touts his record on consumer and health issues during six years in the Legislature.

“I’ve been working my entire time in the Assembly on consumer-protection legislation and health care and insurance reform,” said the former legal-aid attorney.

Jones said he is pushing state legislation that would require insurers to get state approval for rate hikes and is optimistic that the national health care bill will provide momentum for his bill this year.

The California Democratic Party has endorsed Jones, which he said has provided a big boost to his fundraising in recent weeks. According to the latest campaign finance reports as of March 22, De La Torre has raised $1.1 million, compared to $871,000 for Jones.

While Jones is emphasizing his legal background, De La Torre, 42, is focused on his management skills. He was a South Gate city councilman before being elected to the Assembly in 2004. He said he’s not so much concerned with the party’s endorsement as he is with presenting himself as a leader who can get things done.

De La Torre noted that he is endorsed by doctors, firefighters and small-business groups.

He would merge the California Department of Insurance and the Department of Managed Health Care for efficiency, improve access to costly earthquake insurance coverage and implement protections for both consumers and businesses.

“My record in the Legislature is one of being open and fair, but advocating strongly for consumers,” said De La Torre.

His interest in health insurance regulation is a personal one, prompted by his daughter’s hospitalization. A rare infection of infant botulism had put his then-5-month-old daughter on a respirator for weeks.

On the Republican side, Villines is hoping to succeed a GOP incumbent, which could help his chances in a state that has a Democratic voting advantage. He is being challenged in his party primary by Brian Fitzgerald, who works for the Department of Insurance.

The state Republican Party does not give preprimary endorsements.

Villines, 43, said his priority as insurance commissioner is to protect consumers and encourage a healthy insurance market. He also would focus on keeping workers’ compensation insurance costs low for businesses.

“People just want people who will bring a fair and balanced approach as a leader,” Villines said. “I’ve crossed my own party to do that, which really helps me” with moderate Democrats and independents.

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