California’s newly elected insurance commissioner is Steve Poizner, a high-tech entrepreneur and the only Republican other than Arnold Schwarzenegger to hold statewide office. Poizner manages the nation’s largest insurance-regulatory agency, with 1,300 employees. It is arguably the most powerful regulatory entity in state government, and the insurance industry is watching Poizner closely–as are consumer activists looking for clues as to how the new commissioner will deal with powerful, well-heeled insurers. Capitol Weekly caught up with Poizner for his first detailed interview since taking office last month.
Capitol Weekly: What’s your assessment of this job thus far?
Steve Poizner: It’s a terrific job in terms of being able to have an impact on every family, every business and every consumer in the state of California. I’ve done the job for about five weeks now, and it’s been extremely busy. My first week, I was involved with one of the largest insurance-fraud busts in the history of the state of California, along with the district attorney of Los Angeles.
In the last week, I’ve been to the Central Valley many times regarding the crop freeze and the devastation that occurred over the billions of dollars worth of crop losses due to cold weather. Fortunately, about 90 percent of them had some form of crop insurance, hence my role. I was able to declare an insurance emergency because the insurance companies were overwhelmed by literally 3,000 claims that have been filed or will be filed, and I wanted to make sure that farmer got paid quickly. By declaring an insurance emergency, I was able to authorize insurance companies to bring in out-of-state claims adjusters to handle this huge workload. And so, that’s been a very high priority: to get farmers back up and running and back to work, and that requires them to get their claims paid quickly.
What about the red tape?
I was totally able to [cut red tape]. I have the ability to move quickly if I am presented with facts. I had my team do some research. We called insurance companies, a bunch of farmers, a bunch of emergency-response personnel at the state and federal levels, and I determined that there was
justification for this type of emergency insurance declaration, which I did within 10 days of the disaster.
What is the public’s biggest concern with the Department of Insurance? Auto Insurance, homeowners’ insurance, earthquake coverage?
They are concerned about a couple of things that I keep hearing over and over again. It’s a well-kept secret, and part of my top priority is to get information out about how to contact the Department of Insurance. We have an 800 health-insurance [telephone] number, and we have a Web site where people can make complaints about insurance companies or ask questions about their policies. This is a major function of the Department of Insurance