Consumer activist responds to Aug. 8 Editor’s Edge column

To The Editor: I have been thinking about your advice to me to “just shut up” and have some observations about the logic underlying your suggestion.

First, your editorial is based on wrong information. For instance, it states that I always take positions “contrary to the insurance industry’s.” That is simply untrue. I actually agree with most of what the industry does. But I need not always speak out to make that point, since the industry has legions of spokespersons to do so. My silence frequently means agreement.

Sometimes I support the industry overtly. Sticking just to the TRIA issue, in 2001 I supported TRIA passage and did so until my 2002 studies showed that the private market could handle most of the risk. Even in the current TRIA testimony your editorial declared to be a “rant,” I said this: “Consideration should be given to including losses incurred through Weapons of Mass Destruction [nuclear, chemical and biological attacks] as part of the coverage for terrorism, as this is an area where the private sector will require help if coverage for these events is to be provided.” This certainly supports the industry position on this aspect of TRIA.

My job as a consumer activist is to speak out on practices that I see might harm consumers. This means that I often speak out against an industry practice. You would think an editor would understand this obvious aspect of my employment, but apparently he did not understand it.

I grew up in an insurance family and learned as a boy the wonderful benefits of insurance, helping people at time of need through the power of spreading risk. But when I joined the industry I saw that insurance frequently falls far short of its promise. To a degree insurance has changed from a business that put policyholders first to a business that put the bottom line first…as we see revealed in such revelations as the Spitzer findings or the life insurance market conduct abuse scandals of a decade ago. I have worked on insurance consumer matters pro-bono for 25 years because of this unmet promise.

Second, your editorial is rude and offensive. You called me “deluded,” “dangerous,” and “without shame.” An insurance industry attorney alerted me to this editorial and told me that although he disagreed with my position on TRIA he thought this name-calling was libelous. I am not interested in testing that theory, but I am quite surprised that the editor of a major insurance industry trade journal would stoop to such over-the-top rhetoric, clearly beneath the normal standards of the National Underwriter.

The editor appears to draw these extreme conclusions simply because I do not agree that group life insurance should be added to TRIA. The fact that my “dangerous delusion” is shared by the U.S. Treasury Department after their major study of the issue is irrelevant. Congress apparently does not think that I am deluded or ranting when I address them, since they have asked me to testify on TRIA at least six times since the awful attacks of 9-11-01, to discuss my research on TRIA contained in several serious studies, including actuarial analyses.

If opposing group life in TRIA is delusional and a rant, then why does your sister publication, the National Underwriter Property/Casualty edition, print such information as this:

“…a lobbyist for a commercial property-casualty insurance company who asked not to be named, added: ‘It is an absurdity that group life would be included, but that they would scale back the scope of commercial coverage.’ A different lobbyist added that ‘there is no affordability or availability issue with group life–but there is with general liability.’”

Third, your editorial is strange. But most astounding is the question of why, on a very large number of occasions over the last 30 years, has the National Underwriter sought my opinion on insurance public policy questions? Why does NU want to quote a dangerous, delusional man who has no shame? That is very odd indeed.

I must comment on another oddity: that of any journalist, and especially an editor, telling a person engaged in public policy debate to “just shut up.” I thought that journalists were in favor of freedom of speech and, even if I were biased, the press would defend my free speech rights.

For all these reasons, I respectfully decline to follow the National Underwriter’s advice to “just shut up.”

J. Robert Hunter

Director of Insurance

Consumer Federation of America

Editor’s note: Mr. Hunter, as a public figure, should realize that freedom of speech is a two-way street and applies not only to his right to say what he wants but also applies to people’s right to react to what he says. Additionally, I did not think there was any possibility that Mr. Hunter would heed my advice, and judging by his response, I was right.

‘My job as a consumer activist is to speak out on practices that I see might harm consumers. This means that I often speak out against an industry practice.’