California, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Texas, Utah offer best state-run insurance websites
The state insurance department websites in California, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Texas and Utah do the best job of giving consumers access to critical insurance information, according to an InsuranceQuotes.com review of state-run insurance websites across the country.
Each of these websites is easy to navigate and provides a way for consumers to perform such tasks such as comparing auto insurance premiums, filing a complaint against an insurance company or reporting insurance fraud.
Some of the notable bells and whistles include:
• The California Department of Insurance site provides phone numbers and web addresses for all of the auto insurers operating in the state, along with a comparison shopping guide.
• The Georgia Department of Insurance, in tandem with the Georgia Insurance Information Service, offers online access to a form that lets drivers take down information for a crash involving at least two vehicles.
• The Kansas Insurance Department site offers information about how to file an auto accident claim.
• The Ohio Department of Insurance site delivers a bevy of information regarding health care reform, including a glossary of terms, an overview of the federal health care reform law and information about COBRA.
• The Texas Department of Insurance site features a section about auto, renter’s and health insurance devoted to teens and young adults.
• The Utah Insurance Department site has a fact-filled section on how your credit history affects your auto insurance premiums.
On the other hand, dozens of state insurance department websites provide minimal or outdated information regarding complaints against insurers, make it difficult to file an online complaint or send consumers to a third-party website to report fraud. Furthermore, some of the worst websites don’t let consumers do comparison shopping for auto, home or renter’s insurance.
|Brenda Cude, a professor at the University of Georgia, has extensively studied state insurance department websites.|
“Our consumers like the availability of the insurance information online – being able to check up on the licensed status of an insurer, or comparison shopping,” says Ed Echeverria, web bureau chief of the California Department of Insurance.
Many of the state insurance department websites contain links to the website of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a nonprofit organization representing state insurance regulators. Many also use social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with their consumers, although it’s a sure bet that most consumers don’t even know about services provided by their state insurance departments, says Carl Meek, director of information technology at the Utah Insurance Department.
“If we did a focus group and asked the first 100 people on the streets if they knew Utah has an insurance department, we think that number would be pretty low,” says Meek, who has worked in the past with the insurance commissioners’ group on information technology issues.
Credibility is key
Brenda Cude, who is a consumer representative for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and colleague William Fleming looked at the usefulness of state insurance websites and published their results in a September 2010 study. Among other things, Cude says, it’s important that consumers sense the credibility of their states’ insurance department websites.
|The Utah Insurance Department’s website.|
“There is so much out there that it is important that when consumers see something from a state agency, they know that it is backed by the government and it’s not trying to sell them something or offer them biased information,” says Cude, a professor of housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia.
Fleming, who recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, wrote his dissertation on this topic under Cude’s direction.
“Consumers have very little patience,” Cude says. “They’ll move on if they can’t figure out real quick whether the website will do harm to them or their computer or whether the information will do them harm.”
With approval in 2010 of the federal health care law, many state insurance websites have had to scramble to update health-related information.
“It won’t be too long before we have a link to an application where consumers can look up rates for health insurers as part of the health exchange,” says Meeks, the Utah information specialist. Under the federal health care reform law, health insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, will be set up to let people shop for health care plans.
Consumers want cost comparisons
Cude and Fleming reviewed an insurance website review conducted by the Consumer Federation of America in 2008, then asked insurance consumers what they wanted to see from their states’ insurance websites. Not surprisingly, they found insurance consumers wanted to be able to compare costs for insurance premiums and wanted to know which insurers had notched the most complaints.
|The Kansas Insurance Department’s website.|
In its 2008 report, the Consumer Federation of America named the worst state insurance websites as those from Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
InsuranceQuotes.com studied those websites and found many still didn’t provide enough information to help consumers make informed decisions about insurance. Among the examples:
• The complaint index on the Massachusetts Division of Insurance site is from 2008.
• The Indiana Department of Insurance site tells you how to become an insurer, but it doesn’t let consumers do comparison shopping for premiums.
• Several states that do permit comparison shopping don’t give pricing examples for a wide range of people. On the Mississippi Insurance Department website, for example, comparison rates are given for just two types of drivers — a 25-year-old single man with a clean driving record who drives a 2-year-old pickup truck, and a 30-year-old married couple who have a clean driving record, with the husband driving a 2-year-old pickup truck and the wife driving a 2-year-old car.
• Hawaii’s site forces you to download a form to report fraud or file a complaint. It gives you a mailing address and tells you to call the state insurance department if you haven’t heard back from the state agency in 30 to 45 days.
• In West Virginia, you can get a 2009 report on deer-car collisions from the Offices of the Insurance Commissioner site, but you can’t get detailed information about insurance complaints.
Mixed bag on insurance complaints
|The Texas Department of Insurance’s website.|
Cude says there’s an ongoing debate in the insurance industry about whether states should publish “complaint ratios” on their websites. In Cude and Fleming’s study, only 10 states posted complaint ratios for companies that sold auto insurance. Complaint ratios are the total number of upheld complaints against a company divided by the number of policies the company has written in that state. When a state insurance regulator upholds a complaint, it sides with the consumer rather than the insurance company.
“Some folks looking at complaint ratios may not know what they mean, and there is a lot of discussion about how to explain them to consumers,” Cude says. “What is a complaint? Is any communication of dissatisfaction a complaint? Or does it have to be in writing or determined that the complaint was justified? A lot of people feel differently about this, and so some states publish them and some don’t.”
Robert Hunter, the Consumer Federation of America’s director of insurance and a former Texas insurance commissioner, says his consumer advocacy group has been studying state insurance websites for 15 years and is planning another study soon. Hunter says the states’ insurance sites are getting better, but overall they’re still a work in progress.
“We are getting all the pieces in place, and now we are trying to push for convenience,” Hunter says. “We want all the state insurance websites to give you everything on the same site and not refer you to someplace else.”
|The California Department of Insurance’s website.|
Pros and cons of insurance websites
In their report to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, researchers Cude and Fleming determined:
• Websites for less than half (45 percent) of the 50 states and the District of Columbia provided a glossary of terms for auto, home and renter’s insurance.
• Less than a third (31 percent) of state insurance department websites let consumers file fraud reports online, and more than half (59 percent) offered an online form for consumers to file a complaint.
• To convey that their websites are legitimate, 88 percent of state insurance departments used some type of state branding feature, such as a logo, seal or flag.
“For every organization, having a good website is a constant challenge because the bar keeps going up for what a good website is,” Cude says. “For state insurance departments, you have to work within state rules about what you can and cannot do, and you only have a finite number of resources to develop the website.”
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