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Barking up the Wrong Tree: Contact Your State Attorney General with Insurer-Related Complaints.

Because state insurance departments are merely taxpayer-funded bodyguards for the insurance industry, you need to contact your state attorney general with insurer-related complaints.

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Writer John Shortell is body shop manager at Secor’s Collision Technology in New London, Conn. He’s been in the collision industry for more than 20 years and has developed computer software for body shop scheduling called BodyShop Schedule Pro, for subletting towing called Tow Bill Helper and for printing estimates in dollars called Dollars & Sense. For more information, visit www.bodyshopsolutions.com.

II f you’re ever bored and want something useless to do – you know, just to pass the time – and you want to hasten your turn in line at the pearly gates via a high-blood-pressure-induced stroke, try to get your state’s insurance department to discipline an insurance company. It’s a Kevorkian’s dream.

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I’ve had my share of problems getting Connecticut’s Insurance Department to act in the past. You would think I’d learned my lesson. And that’s exactly what the insurance department and the insurance companies bet on. But they don’t usually run across someone like me with so much time and so little to do.

It started when AIG sent one of their finest to inspect a Saab with some minor tree damage to the roof. Normally, the guy I deal with from AIG is outstanding. We never have problems. But AIG recently made some internal changes, moved some people around and I ended up having to deal with someone I’d never met before. I’d heard many wonderful things about him from other shops, but I’d never had the pleasure myself of being graced with his charming personality and generosity. I could write a whole story just on his visit, but let me just say this: The guy was miserable. And he didn’t want to pay for anything. He also didn’t want to pay my labor rate. He then spent 20 minutes in the parking lot trying to fix the car himself.

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He left without an agreed price to repair the car.

I called the appraiser’s boss, but my chances were better with the appraiser. Whatever the reason, the boss was more miserable than the appraiser. I’d heard rumor of this from other shop owners, but I’d just dismissed it as gossip since I’d always enjoyed a great relationship with AIG.

After a full hour of dealing with AIG, I sat down and crafted a finely worded complaint to our helpful state insurance department. Using their official complaint form, I detailed my experience with AIG’s appraiser, his boss, their refusal to negotiate the claim and their attempt at repairing the vehicle themselves in the parking lot. I promptly mailed the complaint and waited.

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A month later I received a response from the Connecticut Insurance Department. "Mr. Shortell, blah blah blah … the Insurance Department doesn’t set rates [they always say this even if I complain about something that has nothing to do with rates] … blah blah blah … our research shows that many insurance companies conduct their own surveys [your research is about as good as the insurance companies’ surveys] blah blah blah … you have the right to set your rates … blah blah blah. Enclosed is the reply from AIG, many more blahs …"

AIG’s letter of response was incredible. They admitted to breaking the law and then lied about how they did it. This is bad enough, but they did this defending the behavior I complained about. AIG wrote: "Mr. [appraiser] offered the insured 3 other repair shops [shops A, B and C] all in the same area. These facilities agreed to repair the vehicle for $42 per hour."

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Because I’ve previously been lied to by insurance adjusters about other shops agreeing to repair cars at lower labor rates, I called each shop listed in AIG’s letter. One shop had received a call from AIG but refused to work for $42. The other two shops told me that they spoke with no one from AIG. So, by the statements of these three shops, AIG lied to the Connecticut Insurance Department. But what they lied about was illegal in the first place.

Connecticut statute 38a-790-5 states: "If the appraiser and the repair shop fail to agree on a price for repairs, the appraiser shall not obtain a competitive estimate from another repair shop unless the owner of such other shop, or his authorized agent, has inspected the vehicle. No such competitive estimates shall be obtained by the use of photographs, telephone calls or in any manner other than a personal inspection."

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AIG told the insurance department in their response letter that they obtained an agreed price with three other shops over the phone, without anyone from these shops inspecting the vehicle. It’s right there in writing! They admit it! But they didn’t really do it. So they lied about breaking the law. How stupid is that?

Now you could debate the nuances of this statute and AIG’s statement until an honest politician was found or until insurance companies started paying fair labor rates, but that misses the point. The point is intent. And it appears that AIG’s intent here was to weasel its way out of taking responsibility for engaging in unfair claims practices.

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Their statement that they obtained agreed prices with other shops over the phone leaves them in a precarious position. To not be guilty of violating statute 38a-790-5, they have to admit to lying to the Connecticut State Insurance Department. I do believe that’s illegal. To stand by their statement and insist they didn’t lie, they have to admit to violating statute 38a-790-5. That’s kind of like having a choice between Allstate and Progressive.

I quickly typed up a response to AIG’s response, outlining the lies and the lying liars and sent it out.

After a month, I still heard nothing. I called to speak with the associate examiner at the Insurance Department to find out the status and what they were going to do to AIG for their behavior. She told me she never received it. This is strange because not only did I send the letter to her, but I also faxed it. Documents seem to get lost between my shop and the Connecticut State Insurance Department quite often. It must be some unexplained phenomenon, like the Bermuda Triangle.

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I resent and re-faxed my response letter, but this time I also sent and faxed a copy to her boss.

Two weeks later, I received another letter from the insurance department associate examiner. It’s unbelievable. Scratch that. It’s totally believable. AIG responded to my accusation that they lied to the insurance department and, basically, told the insurance department they didn’t do anything wrong. So the insurance department writes to me that AIG didn’t do anything wrong and that there’s no further action to be taken.

I wish I had that kind of relationship with the state. I could rob a bank, write a letter to the attorney general, tell him I did nothing wrong and just like that, a get-out-of-jail-free card. Nice.

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I called this … ahem … examiner and asked for an explanation. She repeated her mantra, "We don’t set labor rates."

I started to explain to her that this had nothing to do with labor rates, but she kept telling me to take AIG to court. In other words, "Screw off. These are my buddies you’re harassing, and I won’t help you do it!"

Finally I stopped her: "Let me talk to your boss."

I told him the whole story, and he promised to look into it. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Attorney General now has a nice fat manila envelope filled with various documents, letters, surveys, statutes (just in case he forgot what they say). I wonder if he worked for an insurer before being elected to AG?

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So where does that leave me – and you, for that matter? Well, absolutely nothing happened with this complaint. As usual, the DOI jerked me around until I gave up. But the Attorney General has been more helpful. His interest has been piqued by our tales of woe and by the subsequent scam involving insurance agents taking kickbacks from insurers in return for steering their customers to their overpriced policies. The AG has met with us several times and has put pressure on the insurance commissioner to make some changes. He also made a public statement that he wants to see the insurance commissioner become an elected official answerable to the people.

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I’ve learned that state attorneys general are a much better shoulder to cry on when you have complaints about the insurance industry. State insurance departments are merely taxpayer-funded bodyguards for the insurance industry.

Don’t get me wrong. You still should make formal complaints to your DOI, but you also must forward a copy of it to the AG’s office. You always hear from state officials that they don’t get many complaints about the insurance industry – and this is very often a true statement. Few people take the time to make a formal complaint. And if it’s not in writing, on your state’s official complaint form, it’s not going to get any attention. Which means the DOI will either ignore it or simply go through the motions, especially if the complaint is coming from a body shop.

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It’s important to get the customer to file a complaint, too. Help him fill out the paperwork if you have to. And be sure your AG’s office gets a copy. Most AGs are politicians and love the opportunity for headlines showing that they’re fighting for the little guys. Insurers can be prime targets for AGs.

Oh, and one more thing: You can’t get results if you don’t raise some hell.

Last year the Auto Body Association of Connecticut compiled an 8-inch pile of complaints submitted to the DOI the prior year that weren’t acted on. Twenty copies were made and put into three-ring binders and given to key Connecticut senators and representatives, along with other state officials. The press also received copies. These things weighed about 10 pounds each – and they made quite the impression. We also sent a letter to the Governor telling her that the DOI had the appearance that it was a "den of corruption." That letter got us an immediate call from the Governor’s office (although her office wasn’t the least bit useful).

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But it did help get the attention of the DOI. They realized we weren’t screwing around any more. Shop owners have to realize that state officials have a limited amount of time in their day to get things done. When you raise hell and make noise, you cause them to pay attention. This cuts into their time trying to figure out how to waste your tax dollars. You can complain to each other, you can whine on online discussion boards, but unless you give your state officials a political wedgie, you’re wasting your time.

Writer John Shortell is body shop manager at Secor’s Collision Technology in New London, Conn. He’s been in the collision industry for more than 20 years and has developed computer software for body shop scheduling, for subletting towing and for printing estimates in dollars. For more information, visit www.bodyshopsolutions.com.

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