Isabel-related claims probe announced

Balto. Co. executive assails `aloof' insurance official

Hires Democrat to study issue

Redmer says Smith's move is `political opportunism'

December 17, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Calling Maryland's insurance commissioner "aloof" and unhelpful in his response to Tropical Storm Isabel, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. announced yesterday an investigation of storm-related complaints about insurance companies.

Speaking in front of a Millers Island house that was damaged extensively by the storm, Smith said he has heard countless stories of unresponsive insurers and of people who were misled by agents about their coverage.

"The insurance industry performed miserably in the face of this crisis," Smith said. "There is no justification for the magnitude of uncovered loss that occurred in eastern Baltimore County, or for the delays and procrastinations of insurance adjusters."

Investigating such problems and pressuring insurers is the job of Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., Smith said. But in his opinion, Redmer -- a former Republican state delegate from Perry Hall who worked as an insurance sales executive -- isn't doing it.

So he will pay Stephen B. Larsen, the insurance commissioner under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, $24,000 to study the issue and recommend legislative reforms.

"All I can say is, I've been amazed by [Redmer's] aloofness in addressing a disaster that is in the insurance commissioner's bailiwick," Smith said.

Redmer bristled at Smith's criticism, saying the state response to insurance issues in the wake of Isabel has been extensive and that the executive has "no clue" about the state's handling of complaints.

Redmer said he has visited damaged homes to help people resolve their problems. His office staffed disaster recovery centers around the state and has helped more than 1,200 people, added Redmer, who was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"For Jim Smith to hold a press conference criticizing our response when he has no clue what our response is or has been is probably just political opportunism on his part," Redmer said of the Democrat.

In his year in office, Smith has tended to steer clear of opposing the Ehrlich administration -- the governor won Baltimore County by about twice as many votes as Smith did. But in Isabel's wake, Smith has criticized state and federal officials for touring the damage when television cameras were around but leaving when the time came to help residents rebuild their lives.

Smith said Redmer was dismissive of questions and complaints at a Bowleys Quarters town meeting in the storm's aftermath. Many residents were irritated when Redmer said he could understand their feelings because his summer home had been destroyed in the flood.

Smith said he has not talked to Ehrlich or Redmer about his complaints about the insurance commissioner's office.

The swipe at Redmer might have other political undercurrents. Smith used his campaign fund last summer to pay for a poll of county residents to gauge their opinions of him and three potential re-election opponents. Although Redmer has never publicly expressed interest in running for county executive, he was one of them.

"It's curious to say the least," Redmer said of Smith's criticism.

Millers Island residents accompanying Smith at yesterday's news conference said they are in seemingly unending battles with their insurers and have not been helped by the state.

Georgia Poling, who owns Heritage Food Market in Dundalk, said her home was ruined by the flood. Although she had $190,000 in coverage, and contractors have given rebuilding estimates ranging from $90,000 to $98,000, her insurer is only offering $57,000, she said.

Bernice Myer, a Baltimore homicide detective, said that a month after she remodeled her kitchen in a 1950s diner motif, complete with black-and-white checkered tile and a huge Vulcan range, Isabel flooded the first floor.

Since then, she said, she has had trouble getting a straight answer from her insurer about what is covered and what isn't. Every time the company agrees to pay for something, the cost is low-balled, she said.

Myer formed the Isabel Victims Citizens Group to bring attention to the problem, but she said she has not gotten much response from Redmer. "He primarily wants to deflect it all," she said.

Smith said he has spoken with elected officials from Southern Maryland and was impressed with Larsen's response to the La Plata tornado last year.

Larsen will investigate how insurance companies have responded to Isabel claims, and evaluate insurance regulations and laws in Maryland and other states, Smith said. Because many residents have complained that insurance agents gave them incomplete or inaccurate information about flood coverage, Smith wants Larsen to examine training requirements for agents.

Smith expects a report by the middle of next month, in time to introduce bills in next year's General Assembly.

Redmer said his office is investigating those issues and has held seminars to familiarize agents with flood insurance, which is administered through a federal program. He expects to suggest legislative changes in the Assembly session.

"We had the preparation for the hurricane as it was advancing," Redmer said. "We had the initial response right after the occurrence. We obviously have and continue to be in what is being called the recovery phase. And then, finally, there's the process of evaluating what happened, how it went, and any corrective actions that have to be recommended.

"I can tell you that we have been involved in all aspects of that."

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