Officials query insurer access Lawmakers fear MetLife partnerships imply endorsement

'A captive audience'

Disclaimer, bids considered by county aides

June 30, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Two top state lawmakers yesterday questioned the close relationships county aging offices are forging with Metropolitan Life insurance company, saying they could smack of government-sanctioned endorsements.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. suggested that counties with MetLife partnerships -- including Baltimore County, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard -- ask their local ethics panels to review the relationships. Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House committee that oversees insurance issues, went further, saying counties shouldn't enter into such exclusive partnerships.

"The county is granting access to MetLife for a fee," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "When you give someone exclusive access to make a presentation, it is an implied endorsement."

And at least one MetLife competitor is fuming that the insurer has been granted special access to the elderly in the hot market of long-term care insurance.

The centerpiece of the partnerships is a financial planning tool called The File, which MetLife pays to print in several counties. The company gives seminars about The File to potential customers at senior centers with the help of aging officials.

County governments and MetLife officials defend the partnerships, described in The Sun yesterday, as a way to help public agencies serve the elderly better. Howard County officials said yesterday, however, they will consider issuing a disclaimer in the future making clear the county isn't endorsing the insurer.

The File, printed with MetLife and county government logos, is distributed to seniors at county events and senior centers.

MetLife paid Baltimore County, which originated The File, $30,000 to print 250,000 copies last fall, and has since sold the idea to other counties with the help of Baltimore County aging officials.

"Even for $30,000, it's a deal for MetLife," Busch said. "They have a captive audience. Basically, the person who is marketing their product is the county government, and they have exclusive follow-ups."

Miller said the partnerships would be fine if the counties had printed a disclaimer on The File and any materials related to MetLife, and if the counties had allowed competitors to bid.

"I would certainly hope that [counties] would take notice," he said. "It's a very gray area and it goes on daily in government."

A Baltimore County Department on Aging official says the office did attract a couple of potential bidders with notification in a community newspaper, but the agency did not formally advertise for or otherwise solicit bids. MetLife offered the most money.

One MetLife competitor, Harry "Bud" Marcus of Towson, was so angry upon reading of the partnerships he telephoned Baltimore County government and a state lawmaker.

"I look at it as senior citizens being sold," said Marcus, 62, who said he sells $250,000 a year in long-term care premiums as an agent for Nashville-based Long Term Preferred Care. "Showing them how to complete a folder was just their way of getting [to meet] senior citizens to sell them long-term care insurance."

Marcus said he has tried to arrange seminars with Baltimore County senior centers and has been told the Department of Aging doesn't allow insurance agents to do so.

"I would have gladly written a check for $30,000 to get the opportunity that they have evidently gotten," he said.

Baltimore County aging officials say they do allow other agents and companies to give presentations at their senior centers, as long as they follow strict rules on not making sales pitches. Harford County, which allowed MetLife to print Files for its seniors, says it will not allow MetLife or any other company to do seminars at its senior centers.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said that other than the lack of a disclaimer, he saw no problem with his county's MetLife partnership.

Michael Davis, spokesman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, agreed such sponsorships are common, though he said he hadn't examined the MetLife partnership closely enough to determine whether there were any problems.

"We have to be careful that we don't allow the businesses that support our senior centers to cross the line and pitch products with our officials," Davis said. "We understand people don't do it out of the goodness of their hearts. They're trying to market themselves, but we just have to make sure it doesn't look like we're endorsing them."

Lisa Deger, general manager at MetLife's White Marsh sales office, said it's clear the counties aren't endorsing her company, and she said MetLife never crosses the line to push products.

Deger also pointed out other companies have sponsored regional aging office events such as picnics and fairs. She said MetLife has worked hard to build its File partnerships, and she isn't concerned if competitors are complaining. "Well, early bird gets the worm," she said. "You should have gotten up 10 minutes earlier."

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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