Storm warnings

December 30, 2003

WHEN BALTIMORE County Executive James T. Smith Jr. suggested recently that Alfred W. Redmer Jr. was aloof and uncaring to victims of Tropical Storm Isabel, Maryland's insurance commissioner got mad. Mr. Redmer announced that his agency had done everything it could to help storm victims with their insurance claims. And he even got his own dig in, questioning the wisdom of the county paying $24,000 to his predecessor, Steven B. Larsen, to investigate the problem.

It would be easy to chalk this episode up to politics (Mr. Smith is a Democrat, Mr. Redmer a Republican) or perhaps to personalities (Mr. Smith, a former judge, has at times shown an injudicious temperament, while Mr. Redmer, a former delegate, is surprisingly thin-skinned). But there's something more important at stake -- the fate of thousands of people whose property was damaged by the September storm.

Certainly, something troubling appears to be going on with insurance claims. According to Mr. Smith and others, there's a lot of anger bubbling up in eastern Baltimore County. People who thought they were adequately insured for such a storm quickly learned otherwise. In other cases, payouts of any kind have been slow in coming -- or substantially less than expected. Some of that is typical in disasters (or contract disputes in general), but observers say the outcry has been greater than is customary.

Mr. Larsen is qualified to investigate, but should he? Mr. Smith can study all the insurance problems he wants but he still lacks the authority to do anything about them. At best, he could ask the county's delegates and senators to pursue legislative remedies. Or, perhaps, speak to Maryland's congressional delegation if federal action is required. That's pretty underwhelming. Reaching out to Isabel's victims has been the high point of Mr. Smith's somewhat rocky first year in office. He obviously wants to do all he can for them -- even if all that entails is hiring a consultant.

Still, it's fair for Mr. Smith to ask: Is the current insurance commissioner aggressively pursuing these complaints? He said he is, and that he's reviewing the situation in much the same way that Mr. Larsen will be. But Mr. Redmer is an insurance man. He was sales executive for an insurance company, BenefitMall. In an interview last month with Insurance Advisor Monthly, a trade publication, Mr. Redmer said he'd like to see his office handle fewer complaints and he wants to cut down on the number of staff members who handle them. "I was talking to a carrier and he said the reason we get so many complaints is that we beg for them," Mr. Redmer is quoted as saying.

That doesn't sound like an insurance commissioner who has consumer interests at heart. The primary purpose of the agency he heads, the Maryland Insurance Administration, is to regulate insurers, protect consumers, and investigate and resolve complaints, not to discourage them.

So let's see what Mr. Larsen finds out. If the MIA has done all that can be done for Isabel's victims then Mr. Redmer has nothing to worry about.

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