Some elected officials are skilled at listening to problems and acting as if they understand your plight. But be forewarned: That warm and fuzzy feeling you get after leaving a meeting where you’ve aired your gripes to an attentive government representative will often lead to nothing more than the warm and fuzzy status quo.
As a key representative for a governor and later as a top legislative staffer, I’ve witnessed the reality gap that exists between policymakers and business people. Officials don’t like admitting that they either lack the power to do what has been asked or they simply don’t want to help for one of a hundred reasons. Now, as a lobbyist for the Collision Repair Association of California (CRA), I’m working to remove the communication barriers that have impeded the enforcement of state laws that protect repairers and consumers from illegal acts by insurers.
Kudos for Connecticut
I’ve been impressed by the Auto Body Association of Connecticut (ABAC), which literally put the pedal to the metal after an insurer attempted to steer the wife of that state’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal sponsored anti-steering legislation supported by the ABAC in 2007. That year, in a dramatic moment of public outreach, 70 tow trucks encircled the state capitol to drive home the message that steering hurts consumers. This year, Blumenthal and the ABAC are back with a stronger anti-steering bill and a groundswell of media coverage.
The ABAC employs the services of a skilled publicist, Mike London, who has facilitated the placement of pro-body shop articles in major state newspapers and television stations. Without question, repairers need the media to win in the court of public opinion.
“If consumers are unaware of their rights, those rights are easily swept away by the insurance behemoths,” London says. “A strong media relations program helps inform consumers that they don’t have to take it anymore and helps them understand how to stick up for themselves. Also, a media relations program directed at a specific insurance company will cause the company to think twice before forcing unfair settlements on unsuspecting consumers. [Insurers] don’t want bad publicity. Similarly, a strong media campaign helps begin to counterbalance insurance company lobbyists at state legislatures and state insurance departments.”
Educate Your Legislators
While television cameras were filming tow trucks in Connecticut, the stage was empty 3,000 miles west in California, where regulators have been slow to field complaints from collision repairers. In January 2007, several members of the CRA and I sat across the table from a California lawmaker in an attempt to explain how the Department of Insurance (DOI) wasn’t doing its job. The official did an excellent job nodding his head. But after the term “steering” was used a half dozen times, it became obvious that he thought we were talking about faulty steering wheels. Even though he had been reelected a few times, he didn’t know our vernacular, which is understandable since California is a term-limit state where legislators have little time to become experts on issues. And so begins the first test for any auto body trade association: determine how well elected policymakers know your collision repair problems. You know the meaning of “steering” and “capping,” but the person on the other side of the desk may not.
Nothing beats firsthand knowledge. I have a list of lawmakers who have had their vehicles repaired by a CRA member, as well as those who have been steered. Rest assured these lawmakers understand our plight. My job is to educate those who don’t. One informed legislator is invaluable, given how elected officials discuss issues with each other. Republicans and Democrats routinely meet in caucuses in closed-door sessions to debate the issues of the day with the goal of seeking common ground. When California legislators discuss auto body matters, I know several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who are well versed on steering and capping matters. I trust their perspectives will be influential, at least in terms of stopping the spread of false information.
It’s important to keep track of your lawmaking champions and to keep them updated on industry developments. Don’t assume they have the time or the inclination to maintain expertise on collision repair matters. And remember, lobbyists for insurers far outnumber advocates for fair repairs.
There’s no better example of a champion in transition than my ex-boss, former California state Senator Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough). In the Legislature, she wrote California’s tough anti-steering law and held oversight hearings on unfair and illegal insurer practices. She’s expected to win the open seat for California’s 12th Congressional District in November. When she assumes office in January 2009, the industry can count on another federal lawmaker who has a full understanding of collision issues that could be national in scope: regulation of aftermarket parts, damage disclosure on vehicles and warranty law.
California also boasts Congressman John Campbell (R-Newport Beach), who owns automotive operations, including body shops. Who knows, maybe we have the beginnings of the “collision caucus.” Speier and Campbell served in the California Legislature together and, although they are members of opposite parties, they shared a common concern over the daily potential for insurers to unfairly influence the repair process.
Enlist Support Now
Auto body associations cannot afford to wait for elected officials to be steered in order to enlist their support. They have to take the issues directly to them, and not just with office meetings.
Last year, CRA Executive Director Allen Wood and I took the insurance commissioner’s top attorney to a CRA member’s shop to witness the skills and equipment needed to repair a vehicle. We had this official’s attention for two hours. While he appeared to understand the basic gripes before the tour, he clearly didn’t know or appreciate the professionalism and talent that goes with operating a quality repair facility. But still, we made our point: Hole-in-the-wall garages don’t use lasers to identify structural changes to a frame or computer programs to determine how much it will cost to paint a vehicle.
We’ll be doing more tours in 2008 with the simple goal of improving our industry’s image. Too often, we complain to people about insurers, but we should be telling them about how the industry has well-schooled technicians who know how to work with aluminum, or that we now have environmentally friendly paint booths. Collision repair is a high-tech, high-skilled profession, and that fact should be first and foremost in the minds of regulators and lawmakers.
It’s critical that associations in each state rely on each other for assistance in terms of best lobbying practices. For the remainder of this article, I would like to share a few tips for effective advocacy with the intention of motivating other professionals, be they repairers or advocates, to offer their expertise freely in appropriate forums, including BodyShop Business. Here’s part of what I do on a weekly basis:
Discuss common misconceptions with opinion makers. Make certain they aren’t fooled by myths. Here’s the big one: The contract to repair a vehicle is between the policyholder and the insurer. Wrong. The vehicle owner contracts with the repairer to return the vehicle to pre-loss condition. The insurer, under a typical collision policy, is obligated to pay for reasonable repairs.
To emphasize the importance of the “who’s in control of the contract” issue, the CRA is sponsoring Senate Bill 1059 by state Senator Carole Migden (D-San Francisco). The bill simply states that it’s an unfair business practice for an insurer to require the use of aftermarket parts in a vehicle subject to a factory warranty.
Every day, CRA members are told by insurers to install aftermarket radiators and AC condensers on new vehicles. Last year, an aftermarket radiator was installed on a damaged 2006 model per the insurer’s demand. The radiator developed a leak in the filler neck and the cooling fluid drained out, which led to a cracked cylinder head. The manufacturer wouldn’t pay for the engine repairs because damage was attributable to a non-factory radiator. S.B. 1059 will allow the use of aftermarket parts, but that decision, if this bill becomes law, will be up to the repairer and the consumer, not the insurer. Discussion of the bill will open officials’ eyes to tactics used by insurers to drive down costs at the policyholder’s expense. The CRA’s belief is that if you pay a premium to insure that your vehicle is returned to “pre-loss” condition, then that’s what should happen after it’s damaged.
Make your main point. My discussions always contain this message: CRA members believe they should be paid for the reasonable costs involved in returning a damaged vehicle to pre-loss condition. They have the consumer’s best interest at heart and they fight insurer decisions that compromise a competent repair. I don’t get tricky.
Be concise. I’m careful not to overload my audience with information. The first objective is to leave an office with the sense that the person(s) understands the professionalism of a CRA member.
Know the answers. I offer to respond to any and all questions at any time by cell phone, e-mail or office phone. I also have a list of cell phone numbers of CRA members willing to talk to the press and legislators about specific repair issues. After all, I’m a lobbyist, not the owner of a collision repair business.
Some policymakers and reporters will want to talk to people in the trenches, but there’s a risk when there’s more than one messenger. For example, when I connect a CRA member with a reporter, I have to be certain the member will stay on point with his or her responses. In these cases, I go over possible questions and suggested responses with the member before the press is involved (my ex-news reporter training shows here).
Understand how the media may help you. There’s an art to having articles published and news televised that favor your position. You must have well-documented, accurate information. Don’t expect the press to do the work for you. It’s wise to retain the services of a media relations professional to help deliver the information to the right reporters and news producers.
I monitor the press, particularly the business sections, where there are often articles concerning insurance practices. For example, the Consumer Federation of America released a report in January 2008 that charged insurers with overpricing policies while underpaying claims. That report by itself was too general to be of use, but it gained more relevance when I combined it with documents showing that dozens of California policyholders won small claims court awards that forced certain insurers to pay the full reasonable cost of repairs
The CRA has developed an electronic bulletin that informs our members of breaking events and political developments that might affect their business. If needed, we can reach each CRA member in less than a day. While we have a Web site loaded with information, electronic bulletins are critical because they focus immediate attention on a specific issue that often demands member feedback.
Don’t give up. California’s anti-steering law isn’t enforced by the DOI. The law says that an insurer cannot require a policyholder to go to a specific repair shop and that the insurer may suggest or recommend a shop only if the claimant asks for a referral. Insurers argue that they have the right to inform policyholders about the benefits of using a direct-repair program shop for repairs, but the CRA believes that logic opens the door to steering.
Last year, the CRA wasn’t able to convince a state lawmaker to author a bill that directs the insurer to cease all discussions about the claimant’s choice once that choice has been made. Subsequently, the DOI brought together collision repairers and insurers for the purpose of drafting regulations that would clearly define when a claimant has made an informed choice. The ongoing discussions have been heated and circular in nature, with no mutual agreement on the rules. However, in mid-January 2008, the state lawmaker who refused to author the bill the year before agreed to carry the CRA’s proposed language that would make the steering bill more effective and enforceable.
Why is there new legislative support in California for steering reform? The answer may be due, in part, to the avalanche of steering complaints sent to this particular legislator over the past year. Or there may have been a few personal steering experiences at the state capitol. Whatever the reason, the CRA didn’t give up, and neither did the ABAC on the other side of the country.
Richard Steffen is a California-registered lobbyist representing the Collision Repair Association of California. He can be reached at [email protected].
3 Tips to Tame Your Legislators
1. Determine how well they know your collision problems.
2. Keep track of them and keep them updated on industry developments.
3. Take the issues to them before they’re personally affected by them and not just with office meetings.