Revelations of discrimination by insurance companies are always shocking, but when they come out just days before a vote on an industry-sponsored ballot measure that would legalize unfair price increases and prejudice in auto insurance, Californians should pay particular attention.
A former insurance agent from the Auto Club of Southern California just blew the whistle on a scheme at the company that led to discrimination. The allegations come just as California voters take up Prop 33, a ballot measure financed with $16 million by one insurance executive, Mercury Insurance chairman George Joseph, that will allow auto insurance companies to surcharge motorists just because they didn't buy insurance in the past, even if they didn't own a car.
A new poll from the California Business Roundtable, whose numbers consistently tilt in favor of big business that funds it, shows voters have turned against Prop 33, with support dropping to 48% as the public learns about the proposal and the billionaire insurance executive who is behind it.
The Auto Club of Southern California insurance agent Jill Rogers exposed how the insurance company financially penalized agents for writing policies for new drivers and those without prior insurance, including those who did not drive previously. She said agents hung up on customers who did not have prior insurance and quoted them the most expensive policies, because the agents would only receive a $20 commission on those policies. For those who had continuous coverage, the Auto Club would pay its agents $100 to $500.
Call it Jim Crow Insurance. It's illegal to charge more to new drivers and those with lapses in coverage in Caifornia, so insurance companies find other ways to keep them off the roll.
Clearly auto insurance companies don't like to insure new drivers and those who had a lapse in their coverage, even though they are prevented by law from charging them more. Prop 33 would open the door to outright price discrimination.
As husband of an African American woman, I have seen racial discrimination first hand, including misplaced reservations, overcharges and other indignities endured by my wife and family on a fairly regular basis. Jill Rogers' description of how insurance companies financially pressure agents, who in turn drop phone calls and misquote certain types of drivers, rings a bell. And this occurs in a system where it is already illegal to charge more to people who did not drive previously because they could not afford insurance. How much worse will it be if Prop 33 made such price discrimination legal for all insurance companies?
We know from history. Shortly after California imposed tough mandatory insurance laws in the 1980s, a group of inner city residents sued because they were being forced by the state to buy auto insurance but could not afford it: Insurance companies were charging them thousands of dollars per year for auto insurance because of the ZIP-code they lived in and the fact that they did not have insurance previously.
Auto insurance companies, including George Joseph's Mercury Insurance, the backer of the current Prop 33 proposal, essentially drew a "redline" around their communities and used these two pricing factors to keep African Americans and Latinos out of the auto insurance market.
Justice Allen Broussard of the California Supreme Court wrote: "This case arises from the attempt of the California Legislature to solve a serious social problem - the uninsured driver - without taking into account an equally serious problem - insurance pricing practices which make automobile liability insurance prohibitively expensive for many of the urban poor."
Broussard, the second African American justice to serve on the California Supreme Court, noted that the plaintiffs "speak also of the reluctance of insurance companies to insure persons who were previously uninsured, a problem of particular concern since the purpose of the 1984 legislation was to compel such persons to obtain insurance."
In its decision in the seminal King v Meese case, the California Supreme Court said it sympathized with the plaintiffs but told them to turn to the legislature, which then refused to act. Voters took matters into their own hands in 1988 with Prop 103 and banned the power of insurance companies to charge new drivers and those without previous insurance more for auto insurance.
Now, 24 years later, Prop 33 would reverse the ban and allow companies to again charge new drivers and those without insurance more for auto insurance.
Anyone who doubts that Prop 33 is about giving insurance companies the power to discriminate just needs to listen to Jill Rogers.
Joseph, who has tried to overturn this and others prohibitions on discrimination in the courts and legislature for two decades, before losing a nearly identical ballot measure to Prop 33 just two years, finally admitted to the LA Times recently that he would use Prop 33 to charge more to new people in the market. Afterall, when was the last time an insurance company billionaire spent $16 million on a ballot measure to save you money?
And if you doubt that such price discrimination would fall hardest on people of color, consider that the unemployment rates among whites is 7.5% and among blacks 14.1% percent and Latinos 10.2%. People of color are going to be the most likely to have to stop driving for economic reasons, and Prop 33 will slam them with 40% premium increases when they come back in the insurance market. That's exactly how much Mercury Insurance charged those who didn't drive previously when the sponsor of Prop 33 and his company were caught illegally surcharging them in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Prop 33 hurts all of us by putting more uninsured motorists on the road, and raising our uninsured motorists premiums, but it's attempt to punish communities of color is outrageous.
Prop 33 is a deceptive initiative designed to bring us back to the day when insurance companies could price certain types of people out of the insurance market. That's why consumer groups, civil rights groups like MALDEF and Equal Justice Society, as well every major newspaper editorial board in the state oppose it.
Recently civil rights leader Dolores Huerta spoke out against Prop 33. "We should be wary when a billionaire funds a self-enrichment ballot scheme," said Huerta. "We will all pay if insurance discrimination against the poor and communities of color is brought back. Please join me in voting NO on Prop 33."
Judging by the most recent poll, and thanks to whistleblowers like Jill Rogers, Californians seem to be agreeing with Huerta.
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