Insurance chief reaches out to consumers

Posted July 14, 2009, at 9:56 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Only three consumers showed up, but that didn’t stop Maine’s insurance superintendent, Mila Kofman, Monday evening from rolling out a full program of consumer information about the state’s Bureau of Insurance.

Accompanied by a half-dozen of her senior staff, Kofman hosted the meeting at Eastern Maine Community College to get to know the people she serves.

“I felt it was important for the bureau to reconnect with our consumers,” she said before the meeting. “They need to know what we are and what we can do for them, and I want feedback on how we can serve them better. Maine people — businesses and families — need to know that the government works for them.”

The insurance bureau, funded not by taxpayer dollars but through licensing fees and penalties paid by the industry it regulates, oversees all companies that provide insurance in Maine. Health insurance gets the most attention these days, but Kofman reminded her small audience that insurance for businesses, homeowners, auto-mobiles and professional liability also comes under her purview.

“My job is to make sure that insurance companies keep their promises to you,” she said.

Deputy Superintendent Timothy Schott reviewed two laws enacted in the last legislative session that affect health insurance in Maine. One law provides a state premium subsidy for certain people who have lost their jobs but choose to retain employer health coverage through the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Recon-ciliation Act, or COBRA. The other requires health insurance companies to post coverage and cost information for their most popular individual and small group policies on the bureau’s Web site, making it easier for consumers to compare policies.

The bureau also contains a consumer health care division, reflecting the state Legislature’s recognition that “health care is so complicated, people need assistance,” according to Kofman.

While regulators cannot counsel consumers about which health insurance companies or policies might be best for them, the bureau will advise consumers of their rights, help them file complaints and guide them through adjudicatory hearings.

Deputy Superintendent Eric Cioppa spoke to the bureau’s role in monitoring the financial health of insurance companies doing business in Maine.

“We have to be sure companies have enough money and solvency to pay their claims,” he said.

The insurance industry has “fared pretty well” compared to the banking industry during the current economic downturn, Cioppa said. That’s in part due to the fact that insurance is regulated at the state level instead of at the federal level, he said.

States impose “a more rigorous regulation scheme,” Cioppa said, adding that the industry would prefer federal regulation.

Two of the consumers at the meeting asked questions regarding their homeowners insurance, and the third, who counsels uninsured hospital patients about obtaining health care coverage, asked the bureau to provide simple information for people with limited literacy.

Kofman said the bureau strives to provide intelligible consumer information, with many brochures written at the eighth-grade level.

“But the truth is, insurance is complicated,” she said. “It’s really very complicated.”

Appointed by Gov. John Baldacci, Kofman took over the insurance bureau from former Superintendent Alessandro Iuppa in 2008. She was a divisive candidate, narrowly approved by Democrats in a party-line vote in the Maine Senate. Whereas Iuppa, appointed by then-Gov. Angus King, was generally regarded as a conservative focused on supporting competition in the insurance industry, Kofman’s more consumer-oriented background led to criticism by some Republicans that she was better suited to work in policymaking than in a regulatory environment.

Monday night’s meeting was the second of four “consumer outreach” sessions planned around the state this summer. In addition to providing information about the activities of the Bureau of Insurance, staff members at the meetings offer one-on-one assistance in dealing with insurance-related problems.

The first session took place in Portland last week and attracted about 20 consumers. Additional sessions are scheduled for Aug. 12 at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Aug. 18 at the University of Maine at Farmington. Sessions start at 5 p.m.

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