By ADAM BEAM | Associated Press
SACRAMENTO — Months after California’s home insurance market was rattled by major companies pausing or restricting their coverage, the state’s top regulator said Thursday that he would write new rules aimed at persuading insurers to continue doing business in the nation’s most populous state.
Seven of the 12 largest insurance companies by market share in California have either paused or restricted new policies in the state since last year.
Some state lawmakers tried to come up with a bill that would address the issue. But they failed to reach an agreement before the Legislature adjourned for the year last week.
Here’s a look at what California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara proposed and how it would affect the state’s insurance market:
WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR INSURANCE COMPANIES?
Unlike most states, California heavily regulates its property insurance market.
In 1988, California voters approved Proposition 103. It said insurance companies had to get permission from the state Department of Insurance before they could raise their rates.
When setting their rates, insurance companies cannot consider current or future risks to a property. They can only use historical data.
Insurance companies also buy insurance themselves, a process known as reinsurance. Companies are not allowed to consider their reinsurance costs when setting rates for California homeowners.
California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara speaks during a news conference in a Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Lara announced a new plan aimed at keeping insurance companies from leaving the wildfire-prone state. (AP Photo/Adam Beam)
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Climate change has intensified wildfires in California. Of the 20 most destructive fires in state history, 14 have occurred since 2015, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Insurance companies say that because they can’t consider climate change in their rates, it makes it difficult to truly price the risk for properties. They also complain that they are having to pay more for reinsurance, which they cannot recoup from ratepayers.
Many insurers have responded by pausing or restricting new business in the state. They’ve also opted to not renew insurance coverage for some homeowners.
When homeowners who need insurance can’t get it from private insurance companies, they must purchase policies from the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan. The plan is primarily funded by policies sold to customers. Insurers only pay into the fund if it is insolvent or to keep it from going insolvent.
The number of people on the FAIR Plan has nearly doubled in recent years. Insurance companies are worried about this trend. If the fund were to go insolvent, insurance companies would have to cover the cost.
WHAT IS THE STATE’S PLAN?
California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said he will write new rules that would let insurers consider climate change when setting their rates. He has also pledged to consider rules that would let them consider some of their reinsurance costs.
The rules requiring insurance companies to get permission from the state to raise their rates would not change.
Lara said the state will only let companies use these new rules if they write more policies for people who live in areas threatened by wildfires. He said this means companies must write policies in these areas of no less than 85% of their statewide market share. That means if a company insures 20 out of 100 homes, the company would have to also write 17 policies for homeowners in an area threatened by wildfires.
HOW WILL THIS AFFECT RATES?
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Some consumer groups, including the California-based Consumer Watchdog, fear that allowing insurance companies to consider climate change in their rates will lead to dramatically higher prices for homeowners.
But Lara said the new rules could also benefit homeowners. He said insurance companies could also consider improvements that owners have made to make their homes more resistant to wildfires. Companies could also consider the billions of dollars in public money that the government has spent to better manage forests and reduce wildfire risks.
If the rules work and more companies stay in California’s insurance market, it could increase competition for customers — potentially holding rate increases in check.
WHEN WOULD THE RULES TAKE EFFECT?
It would take a while for state regulators to write the rules. The process includes lots of time for insurance companies and consumer groups to give their input. Lara said he has given the department a deadline of December 2024 to have the new rules completed.