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Panel to take up bill on city insurance rates


Faced with a daunting auto insurance bill, Alyson Jurcak figured she had two options: lie or leave.

Ms. Jurcak, then a Curtis Bay resident, couldn't afford to pay the almost $2,000 annual insurance premium on a 1969 Dodge sedan, not on a $3.65-an-hour wage. So for years, she used a phony suburban address and cut her bill in half.

Today, Ms. Jurcak lives in Glen Burnie and pays about $750 a year to insure her 1990 Nissan Sentra. Her experience with car insurance was one of the major reasons she fled Baltimore.

"A lot of my co-workers live in the city and they can't afford to have cars," says Ms. Jurcak, 27, a bartender. "I like Fells Point and Canton, but it's just not worth it."

Tomorrow, a House committee is scheduled to act on a bill that attempts to address the disparity between what city residents pay for car insurance and what drivers elsewhere in the state pay.

The bill, offered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, is unlikely to dramatically change the imbalance.

But supporters believe it would force more insurance companies to compete for business in the city -- and ultimately, that could drive rates down.

"We believe that companies in the private market are not competing as vigorously in Baltimore as they are in other subdivisions," said David M. Funk, a city attorney who chairs a gubernatorial commission studying the issue. "In my view, this is a modest first step."

Most insurers aren't happy with the proposal, which they perceive as government interference akin to telling supermarkets like Giant or Safeway where to sell groceries.

"We're the messenger, not the villain," said Leo W. Doyle, a lobbyist in Annapolis for the National Association of Independent Insurers. "There are better things they could be doing to reduce insurance costs than bulldozing the insurance industry."

In the weeks since the legislation was first unveiled, the Glendening administration has twice offered amendments to make the bill more palatable to the powerful insurance lobby.

Much of the attention has focused on a provision of the bill that would aid city drivers exclusively. It's a requirement that major insurers who write policies in the Baltimore area meet a quota in the city.

The goal would be set at 75 percent of an insurer's statewide market share. Insurance companies would have three years to achieve that standard.

But under an amendment offered by the administration this week, the state insurance commissioner could void that requirement if he finds the city market has become competitive.

"It gives the commissioner an opportunity to relax the standard," said Glendening aide Steve Larsen. "If the policy goal is reached, there's no reason not to."

Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said he expects to support the amended version of the bill, but remains skeptical about the impact of the market share provision.

"This bill will not be a be-all or end-all," said Mr. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "I don't think it will turn the insurance world upside down."

That's because the Glendening bill does not touch on most of the factors underlying the city's high insurance rates. Even administration officials concede that addressing those root causes is a subject for next year's General Assembly session, when Mr. Funk's commission will have reported its findings.

What the commission is likely to learn is that high insurance rates are a common problem for cities, for many reasons. More traffic accidents take place in densely populated areas. Accidents in the city are more likely to end up in the hands of lawyers, with one or more victims claiming injury. Vandalism and theft are more prevalent.

Medical costs are often higher in the city. Courts are so overwhelmed by caseloads it becomes cheaper to settle than fight.

"The real solution is in [reducing] the losses that drive rates," said Jeffrey D. Rouch, a lobbyist for Nationwide Insurance, one of the state's largest carriers. "We think litigation and medical treatment costs are a large part of that."

But how much more should people have to pay because of where they live? When city resident Nancy Bethke moved a few miles to a nicer home in mostly black Ashburton from mostly white Woodberry, her car insurance rates jumped $300.

She sees that as "redlining," a deliberate act of discrimination based on race.

"There's no reasonable explanation for that," said Ms. Bethke, 47, a public school speech pathologist who lives on the same street as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It adds to the sense of malaise of living in the city, and it almost makes it worthwhile to live further away."

Insurers counter that rates are set based on cold, hard numbers -- the results generated from decades of experience with claims. If a territory has a history of large payouts, they say, the people who live there deserve to be charged a higher rate.

The territory can be defined by city limits, ZIP codes or some other method,but the results would still reflect a higher risk in urban neighborhoods, insurers claim.

If private companies stopped using a territorial system of rating, drivers in the suburbs and rural areas would inevitably pay more, subsidizing the cost of urban policyholders. That's a remedy, both sides agree, that would be too politically unpopular for either the governor or the legislature.

In years past, other remedies have been recommended. Various forms of tort reform have been pushed by the insurance industry to lessen the chances an accident will end up in court. But such proposals are even more controversial than the governor's bill.

Some elements of the administration's bill do have the backing of insurance companies. The legislation, for instance, would beef up efforts to fight fraud and encourage the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund's best drivers to switch to private insurance for cheaper coverage.

Even if the measure doesn't lower city rates, supporters say it may force companies to at least market their insurance more aggressively, either through advertising or by locating more agents in city neighborhoods. It will then be up to consumers to hunt for their best deal.

"There is no consensus about what is wrong with the system," notes Mr. Funk, whose commission begins deliberations next week. "We may even find that drivers are paying a fair amount."

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