WASHINGTON BUREAU — The California Department of Insurance has armed a private auditing firm with the powers of the insurance commissioner, in an apparent sign that the department is making an investigation of life insurer claim settlement practices a top priority.
The California department has retained Verus Financial L.L.C., Waterbury, Conn., as a special examiner, according to a letter obtained by National Underwriter.
Verus will “examine insurer practices regarding payment of benefits under life insurance policies and annuities; termination of annuity payments; payments to holders of retained asset accounts; use of the Social Security Administration ‘Death Master File’; and other matters as directed by the Department related to life insurance policies, annuities, and retained asset accounts,” the department says in the letter.
The letter obtained by the National Underwriter indicates that Verus’ examination of insurers’ books includes “but is not limited to” the unclaimed property issue. Verus would be paid monthly, according to the letter.
Verus must submit monthly invoices “summarizing the services performed and expenses incurred for the period” to the insurers involved, the department says.
Verus will receive $125 an hour for the examination services it provides, as well as reimbursement for meals and travel, the department says
The insurers being audited will be assessed and, if an insurer does not pay within 30 days of being billed, its license to do business in California can be revoked, the department says.
The department does not describe any contingency fee arrangement in the letter.
In other cases, Verus has received a percentage of monies recovered from insurers on behalf of policyholders.
Industry officials say Verus is likely to be given the money that insurers pay in fines, and the officials expect these fines to be in the range of 12% to 20% of the monies that the insurers should have turned over to beneficiaries or to state unclaimed property funds.
Verus has signed contracts with 35 states, and the contracts call for Verus to be paid a fee for auditing the unclaimed property practices of insurers doing business in those states, according to papers filed in May in connection with a settlement California officials negotiated with John Hancock, Boston. It is unclear whether those contracts give Verus employees the same powers as California has given them.
Byron Tucker, deputy California insurance commissioner, says state insurance law specifically authorizes the type of exams the state has hired Verus to conduct. “It is somewhat routine to bring in outside auditors with special expertise to assist the department in conducting these exams,” Tucker says.
States routinely deploy outside auditors to conduct extensive market conduct exams because they lack the staff to conduct these audits, Tucker says.