On the evening of Nov. 4 as I stood in the heart of Times Square watching our new President-elect Barack Obama deliver his acceptance speech on huge monitors that competed with Broadway’s neon, I was riveted not only by the address but by the energy, excitement and sense of hope in America’s future.
Without exaggeration, it was an electrifying feeling.
Closer to the industry, but also celebrating their own hard fought victories are 5 state insurance commissioners and numerous state insurance legislators–sans neon lights and jumbo monitors, however.
But in a real way, they face the same themes that are being played out on the national political stage: change and challenge.
In just the turn of a season, this fall is being marked by unprecedented change for the insurance industry.
The industry’s image of itself is being shaken by the felling of insurance giant American International Group, New York. It should be noted that by all accounts the insurance units are in good shape for now. But even so, the challenge to sell off units and reshape the remaining company, if possible, is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Proponents of state insurance regulation know too well the challenges they face as members of Congress who blame the AIG debacle on current regulation raise the cry for federal regulation.
Those in the industry who favor a federal approach know the challenges that insurers face integrating the U.S. industry into a global market and competing with other financial services sectors.
And in another area of the business, regulating health insurance when state regulators are not preempted from doing so is a difficult task at best. Helping insurance consumers understand how their coverage works and what they are entitled to is a whole other issue. Instructing those who do not have health care about their options is yet another matter. All these nuances have been brought to light during several public hearings that the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Kansas City, Mo., has convened.
And this is not to mention general industry trends such as selling insurance products that could be viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity by suddenly frugal consumers during tough times.
So why, in the face of all this, is there reason to hope?
Well, one good reason is that many regulators and legislators who understand the insurance industry will continue to be around now that Election Day 2008 has passed.
Only 5 insurance spots were up for grabs, a relatively light tally compared with the recent elections in which there was a turnover of more than 20 insurance commissioners in some cases. Of those 5, two commissioners, Adam Hamm of North Dakota and Mike Kreidler of Washington, are returning regulators.
There were gubernatorial races in 6 states where the governor appoints the commissioner. In 5 of those states, the incumbent won and in one state, Missouri, the electorate chose Democrat Jay Nixon rather than re-electing the Republican, raising the likelihood of a new appointment.
Of the 3 state legislators in leadership positions at the National Conference of Insurance Legislators, Troy, N.Y., all handily won reelection: state representative Brian Kennedy, D, R.I.; state senator James Seward, R, N.Y.; and state representative Robert Damron, D, Ky.
And, of a number of experienced legislators on NCOIL’s executive committee, 10 were reelected and only 3 left their posts because of term limits or to pursue other interests.
These seasoned regulatory and legislative veterans not only know the industry but the arguments that have been made, the arguments that need to be made, the contacts that will be needed to work with federal officials and the tone of the times and what that means for the viability of any issues they frame.
So, yes there is good reason to hope.
It is very easy to lose faith, given these daunting obstacles. But just as Americans will have to have faith that our nation will right itself and face economic, global political, energy and environmental issues head on, so will those in the insurance industry need to remain hopeful.
“Yes we can” shouldn’t be a political catchphrase bandied about lightly but a principle incorporated into everyday practice whether it is used to strengthen suitability, improve uniformity or make health insurance more accessible to consumers.
If used properly, the concept is a powerful one–the first step followed by the next step, “Yes, we do.”