Consumer Issues, Business Climate Highlight Candidate Forum

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Pledges to work for consumers and encourage competition in the Kansas insurance industry were common themes Tuesday in a forum featuring six candidates for Kansas Insurance Commissioner.

The group, including Democrat Dennis Anderson and Republicans Beverly Gossage, David Powell, Ken Selzer and Clark Schultz, answered questions during the monthly lunch meeting of the Topeka Independent Business Association. They are vying to succeed Republican Sandy Praeger, who opted against seeking a fourth term in the office.

A sixth Republican, John Toplikar, has announced intentions to run but did not attend Tuesday's event.

TIBA Chairman David Lippe says the program grew out of a recent survey the organization conducted. It found health insurance among the top concerns of business owners who responded. Lippe said the result was a bit surprising, since most TIBA members have ten or fewer employees. However, he said they are finding that offering insurance is a good way to attract and keep good employees. He hoped candidates would share how they would help small businesses do that in a cost-effective manner without a lot of paperwork.

Weather-Related Claims
Monday's discussion started with how the insurance office could ensure homeowners and business owners would not lose coverage over a single weather-related claim.

Gossage said regulators cannot be heavy-handed and that forcing companies to guarantee renewals would drive up rates. However, she said it was important to have a grievance process in place. Selzer agreed, saying overregulation reduces competition and he believes Kansas consumers already suffer from a lack of competition in the insurance industry in the form of higher premiums. Schultz also advocated competition, adding that there must be a balance between telling companies they cannot cancel customers while also being fair to customers.

While Anderson said he would like to see further study on the issue, Powell disagreed with his opponents. He said six insurance departments say policies cannot be canceled due to weather-related events and Kansas should join them. He also said the state must step in on zero-claim cancellations, where companies cancel customers who submit a certain number of claims that are never actually paid out on because they do not meet the deductible.

Federal Health Care Law
The candidates differed along party lines when it came to their thoughts on the Affordable Care Act. Anderson pointed out he was the only Democrat in the field. He acknowledged the ACA has flaws, but that it also ensures coverage when someone is diagnosed with a chronic condition and is helping people avoid going broke from medical bills.

Powell said he would use the law's glitches against it. For example, he said would allow people to keep all current policies, saying they meet his definition of "essential coverage." Gossage said the insurance commissioner must speak up against the negative impact of the law. Selzer and Schulz both said the law will change as time goes on and they must help citizens sort through what's left of it.

Improving the Department
Each candidate offered a different idea on what they would like to improve in the department. Anderson cited the need for good employees, while adding he did not want to pinpoint any area to change until he actually was in the office to study its operations. Gossage felt the insurance commissioner should do a better job listening to agents. Powell suggested policy changes so that new insurance products could be introduced to the market more quickly. Selzer said he would encourage good business practices in the office's operations. Schultz said he would renew focus on consumer issues, such as investigating fraud and ensuring protections for customers when companies go out of business.

Department Funding
Disagreements surfaced when candidates were asked about how the department is funded. Currently, it is funded through fees paid by agents, brokers and carriers, with the excess put into the state general fund.

Anderson said the system seems to operated smoothly, with Powell pointing out that the fees amount to less than two percent of premium costs. He said the sweep put $114 million into the state general fund last year and, without it, the money would simply be made up in other taxes. Schulz echoed those thoughts, saying to think a tax should only be earmarked to run a single department is not reasonable.

But Gossage and Selzer said the current fees discourage business. Gossage said it is more than double the amount that is needed to run the department, with the cost paid by small businesses and individuals on their policies. Selzer said the premium taxes must be reduced.

Annuity Answers
Candidates also were asked whether fixed and variable annuities should fall under regulation of the Kansas Securities Commissioner. All said they felt the state currently had a proper split, though Schulz did say it might be worthwhile to study whether the departments could realize efficiencies by combining. Selzer said the department might want to review how the options are presented to consumers, particularly the elderly, to ensure they are understood.

WIBW-TV's Melissa Brunner moderated the discussion. The GOP candidates first face off in the August primary. The winner will likely face Anderson on the November ballot, since no other Democrat has yet entered the race.