• 63°

Dale doubts tort reform will be OK’d this year

[3/3/04]The budget will dominate the 2004 Legislative session, making enactment of further tort reform or new insurance laws unlikely, Insurance Commissioner George Dale said here Tuesday.

Dale made his comments to the Vicksburg Kiwanis Club at its regular noon meeting at Maxwell’s Restaurant.

Dale, who is beginning his eighth term as the state’s insurance commissioner, is longest-tenured among his 49 counterparts across the country.

“This session is so engulfed in the money issue that it will overshadow anything else,” Dale said. “That’s the underriding theme of the whole session.”

This year’s session of the Mississippi Legislature is 120 days, of which about 60 have elapsed. A tort reform bill has passed the Senate, but may hit a brick wall in the House.

Dale centered his comments on his belief that a negative image of Mississippi’s legal climate, among other factors, affects the price and availability of insurance in the state.

Dale cited as an example an inquiry he made on behalf of the state’s bed-and-breakfast association. Representatives of the group had told him the number of companies offering insurance for such businesses in the state had shrunk.

“The first call I made was to a national company,” he said.

“They said, Now, what state are you from?’ I said, Mississippi.’ (The company representative) said, Nope, we have no interest in writing your state.’

“I run into that all the time,” Dale said. “So if the legal climate is not a barrier, the perception of it is.”

Other factors that have contributed to the price and availability of insurance are lower investment income for insurance companies and higher claims payouts.

The state insurance industry’s average loss ratio was $107 meaning companies average that amount in claim payouts for every $100 they take in, Dale said. That level allows insurers to make money in normal times, he added, but recent year’s investment returns have been lower than normal.

Questioned about the state’s mandatory liability-insurance law for drivers, which the Legislature made effective in 2002, Dale called it “a watered-down system.” He said it had not been as effective as it might have been. Under the law, officers cannot ask for proof of coverage unless there has been a wreck or a separate traffic violation.

On health insurance, Dale said the whole country is in transition.

“We’ve got to decide if we’re in national health insurance or we’re out of national health insurance,” he said. Government programs already provide payments for most Mississippians’ health care.

“We’re already two-thirds to national health insurance in the state of Mississippi,” he said. “But yet we all are opposed to national health insurance because it does not really work to provide adequate health-care coverage.”

The current “half-in, half-out” health-insurance system “puts the system in chaos, which is where it is now,” Dale said.