Jim Beck, the commissioner of the Georgia Insurance Department, speaks at a press conference in March about an insurance fraud bust in a courtroom at the Clayton County Superior Court in Jonesboro. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Georgia insurance commissioner makes educating consumers a priority

Georgia consumers can now see how often complaints are filed against health insurers, compare more up-to-date auto coverage rates and review the Department of Insurance’s expenditures online.

They could also eventually watch streamed public hearings when companies seek to jack up rates.

Those are just a few of the changes Jim Beck has made since becoming insurance commissioner in January, taking over an agency best known for allowing auto insurance rates to soar largely unchecked and for having a website that wasn’t particularly consumer-friendly.

The website remains a bit clunky, but Beck, a former state government press secretary, and his chief of staff, Josh McKoon, who was a good-government advocate in the Georgia Senate, have made improving transparency for consumers a top priority over the past four months.

“Insurance products have always been complicated, but they are becoming even more complicated,” Beck said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So consumers need as much transparency as they can get to have a fair shot at understanding the products they are being asked to buy. Consumers need to be armed with as much information as possible before they make the decision who to buy from or to keep buying from, or whether to complain.

“Folks have a right to know what they are buying, and folks have a right to know who they are dealing with.”

Before taking office, Beck led the Georgia Christian Coalition, was the press secretary to Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard in the 1990s, and worked as an insurance industry official and Department of Insurance staffer.

He ran what was a largely self-funded campaign when he easily won the Republican nomination last year. He then beat Democrat Janice Laws, an insurance agent, in the general election.

Beck vowed to do something about rising auto insurance premiums and the industry’s longtime hold over the office.

Shortly after taking office, he announced the hiring of McKoon, a former state senator who pushed ethics and government transparency legislation in the General Assembly, as his chief of staff.

Beck quickly moved to begin making more information available to consumers.

At one time he had been a top aide to his immediate predecessor, Ralph Hudgens, who saw auto insurance rates soar during his tenure. Hudgens said he was hamstrung by a law he supported while serving in the state Senate that allowed insurance companies to charge rates without prior approval from his office. The new rates could only be contested if they were found to be “excessive.”

The AJC reported in 2017 that Georgia ranked 1st or 2nd for several years for rate increases for auto insurance.

While many of his political opponents said the “file and use” law needed to go, Beck instead said he asked insurers not to come with big rate hike requests while he studied the issue and got familiar with his office’s power.

He said he hasn’t seen any huge requests so far, and he vowed to hold public hearings — streamed live — to force any company wanting one to justify it to his office and customers.

“I want to make sure they understand that just because the file-and-use bill passed, it did not mean this particular commissioner feels like he has no levers to pull to make sure consumers are treated fairly,” Beck said. “I think a lot of the companies got the message.”

Beck speculated that some insurance companies are holding back now because they put in big rate hikes before he came into office.

One of his top goals is rebuilding the agency’s website to give consumers more information in a fashion that’s readily accessible.

The agency’s Consumer Services Division posted, by company and type of insurance, the number of complaints against each company in 2018 at www.oci.ga.gov/ConsumerService/complaintprocess.aspx. Unsurprisingly, the most complaints are linked to the biggest health insurers: Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Ambetter of Peach State, and UnitedHealthcare. However, the site also includes ratios based on volume of business, so several smaller companies have much higher rates of confirmed complaints.

A confirmed complaint means the Insurance Department has determined that the insurer committed a violation, or that the complaint and the company’s response indicate the insurer was in error.

On auto insurance, State Farm, by far the biggest insurer in the state, had the most complaints, but several much smaller competitors, such as First Acceptance Insurance Co. and ACCC Insurance Co., had much higher rates.

Beck also told companies they had to more regularly update their information on the agency’s auto rate comparison tool, which is in the consumer services section, under types of insurance, at www.oci.ga.gov/ConsumerService/RateComparisons-Auto.aspx. While similar information is available on some company sites, Beck hopes to make his agency a one-stop shop for rate information as his system is upgraded.

He also promoted greater public access to see rate increase requests, and earlier this year his office began posting basic financial information — telling the public how it spends the state’s money. Again, Beck said he wants to expand the Open Checkbook Program as his agency’s website gets updated and its capacity is increased.

“This is kind of 1.0. We are going to do 2.0 and 3.0,” Beck said. “The website is not very consumer-friendly. We are thinking this will get better and better.”

Beck said his own staff is using the data as well. For instance, his consumer office checks the complaint portal to see whether companies requesting rate hikes have an above average rate of complaint. That can figure into how his agency reacts to requests.

Carl Rogers, a former longtime Gainesville state lawmaker with decades of experience in the insurance business, said it’s too early to tell how helpful the rate comparison information will be to consumers, who now can call around to companies and gather their own research.

“I think Jim is more of a consumer advocate as commissioner … plus he knows the business,” Rogers said. “With the power of the internet, I think it makes sense to post rates. I think it makes sense to put it into a one-stop shop website.”

William Perry, the head of Georgia Ethics Watchdog, a good-government group, applauded the insurance agency’s efforts, especially the posting of complaint data.

“It’s difficult for consumers to get good information from companies that they don’t want you to have,” he said. “That a government entity can release this information is extremely important to citizens.”

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