Miss. Commissioner Suggests Claims Mediation, Town Hall Meetings; If Those Fail He Says, ‘File Suit’

October 12, 2005

Several solutions to hasten the Hurricane Katrina claims process have been suggested by Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale, such as a mediation program to settle contested insurance or a town hall meeting to bring insurance executives and coastal residents face-to-face, but has not decided if either approach is practical. What is practical, Dale says, is if mediation fails, the policyholder has to file suit against the insurance carrier.

“We’re quietly nudging, coercing, pushing, begging companies to pay more claims without making some big fanfare and not being able to live up to what we’re attempting to do,” Dale, 65, a Gulfport native told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Each day, the eight-term commissioner grapples with insurance companies that have paid more than $652 million in claims for toppled trees and missing roofs and homeowners left with a concrete slab near the beach.

He takes phone calls from angry voters, who received partial payments for houses destroyed by the Aug. 29 storm while meeting with insurance executives to ask for the highest payments possible.

The mediation program would be similar to one in Florida and bring policyholders and insurance adjusters into the same room with a Mississippi Bar-certified mediator. Dale said in Florida more than 80 percent of the claims were settled through mediation.

But if policyholders cannot satisfactorily settle a claim, “I probably would seek some assistance through the courthouse, and that’s what we’re going to encourage people to do,” he said.

Dale wants the Legislature to approve stronger building codes and policyholders to sign waivers acknowledging any refusal to purchase federal flood insurance.

Many residents did not have flood insurance because their houses did not flood in Hurricane Camille in 1969, the worst storm Mississippi had seen until Katrina.

“Everybody has made their plans on flood insurance based on Camille,” he said. “A lot of people have gotten caught in an unusual circumstance.”

Dale said he has to “stand behind” insurance contracts that exclude damage from flooding, even when the storm’s winds pushed a storm surge into coastal neighborhoods.

“I do not relish at all or like the position I’m in as being the one who has to tell people there are exclusions for water,” Dale said. “It makes it look like I’m in cahoots with the insurance companies because I have to tell them the exclusions from the policies.”

The Clarion-Ledger said Dale seems conflicted on a proposal by 4th District Rep. Gene Taylor for the federal flood insurance program to cover flood damages to policyholders who lacked flood insurance. They would pay into the program for a number of years afterward.

Dale said he endorses Taylor’s plan though the concept, paying into a plan not initially purchased, is flawed.

“The federal government is going to have to find some way to bail out the Coast,” Dale said. “But the wrong congressman is pushing the plan.

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