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Archive for Sunday, July 28, 2002

Insurance election outcome will affect family pocketbook

July 28, 2002

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Republican Party primary battles for governor and attorney general have been grabbing most of the political attention, while the GOP race for insurance commissioner has received little fanfare.

But there is probably no other statewide official who has a bigger impact on the family budget.

The insurance commissioner regulates a $9.3 billion industry in Kansas at a time insurance costs are taking an increasingly bigger bite out of Kansans' pockets.

And with the Aug. 6 primary nearing, the insurance commissioner's race is heating up, with candidates making charges that their opponents lack experience, ethics  or both.

On the Republican ballot are Sandy Praeger, a state senator from Lawrence; Bryan Riley, an insurance salesman from Wichita; and David Powell, who owns an insurance company in El Dorado.

Praeger, 57, is a 12-year member of the Legislature who is chairwoman of the Senate committee that handles insurance-related legislation.

Riley, 37, sells long-term care insurance and ran a low-budget, unsuccessful campaign in 1998 against current insurance commissioner Kathleen Sebelius, who now is the Democratic candidate for governor.

Powell, 56, has been in the insurance business for 25 years and owns David Powell and Associates, which sells many lines of insurance, but primarily health insurance.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Jim Garner in the general election. Garner, a state representative from Coffeyville and the House Democratic leader, faces no opposition for his party's nomination for insurance commissioner.

Campaign charges

Praeger is the best-financed candidate in the primary, with much of her financial support coming from the insurance industry she would regulate if elected. Those campaign contributions are drawing fire from Riley and Garner.

"I'm a little bit concerned that Sandy Praeger is going to look like we're going back to the days of (former insurance commissioners) Ron Todd and Fletcher Bell, where the industry unites behind a certain candidate and does everything it can to establish a close relationship with that candidate. We need someone who is going to be more independent," Riley said.

As of January, Praeger had raised $47,725 for her insurance commissioner's race, and about half of that came from insurance and health industry interests. Riley had raised $4,825, mostly from individuals, and Powell had not raised anything. Another campaign finance report is due from the candidates Monday.

Praeger's solicitation and acceptance of large campaign contributions from insurers also offer a stark contrast to the way Sebelius operated. Sebelius refused to take money from insurance interests.

But Praeger says to look at her record, not her opponents' rhetoric. She said she has proven her independence by pushing for initiatives opposed by the insurance industry, such as mandating expansion of coverage for mental health care.

"I'm saying I will behave the same regardless of whether someone has made a contribution or not," Praeger said.

For Powell, his beef with his opponents isn't about ethics, it's about experience. While he lacks political experience, Powell said his opponents have no real-life insurance experience.

"I felt like we needed to have somebody in the office that has worked with the carriers and the public and the agents, and there was no one running who could say that," Powell said. "The young man (Riley) has a couple of years under his belt and then there are two career politicians," he said, referring to Praeger and Garner.

More insurers needed

The three Republicans agree the state needs more insurance companies writing coverage in Kansas.

Praeger said a crisis in the availability of insurance was on the horizon because companies were pulling out of the state. "We need to look at the regulatory process to make sure that we are not creating barriers (to insurance companies). A good, competitive market is best for Kansas," she said.

But Riley blamed Praeger and the Legislature for driving out companies by mandating certain types of coverage. He said he opposes mandated coverage and recently released a survey of Republican primary voters that he says shows they agree with him.

"That Kansas Republicans believe people should make decisions for themselves is really not surprising," Riley said. "What is surprising is that my opponent has repeatedly voted against the right of Kansans to make their own choices by supporting mandated coverages."

Praeger said the anti-mandate mantra makes a good sound bite but was not practical.

Without required coverage, "No one is going to change or offer something that is greater than what the others are offering. If they did they will get all the people who want that benefit and the premium would be just out of sight," Praeger said. She added, "We are not going to do away with mammograms, Pap smears, prostate screening. Those are all important components of any good health plan."

Dwindling insurers

Powell said he wanted to reverse the trend of companies leaving the Kansas market. He said Sebelius had focused on consumers to the detriment of insurers, which, he said, has ultimately hurt consumers because companies stop doing business in the state.

"When you have few choices, that has a dramatic effect on rates. When there's lot of competition, you get companies to give concessions on rates," he said.

Officials at the state insurance department say Sebelius has a solid record of working for consumers and helping insurers.

The number of companies selling health insurance policies to individuals has decreased in the past three years to 12 from 25. But Vicki Buening, a spokeswoman for the state insurance agency, said those reductions had occurred throughout the Midwest because of increasing health-care costs.

Sebelius, she said, has put together a committee of agents to come up with ways to attract more insurers. The agency also is overseeing a five-year study to develop ways to reduce the number of uninsured, she said.

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