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Project: The Insurance Transparency Project

Dean Starkman took an in-depth look at the insurance industry through his blog, InsuranceTransparencyProject.com, which offers commentary and original reporting on political, legal, and corporate news affecting the insurance aftermath; he contributed to several newspapers and is also working on a book and a data-collection project in Bay St. Louis, MS.

Starkman spoke in detail about the various aspects of his project:

My mandate as an OSI Katrina Media Fellow was to explore the insurance industry's response to Hurricane Katrina, which I suspected when I applied for the grant would evolve into a critical—and under-covered—component of the post-disaster period. This has turned out to be the case.

Over time, it became clear the topic could not adequately be covered piecemeal, particularly given limited interest among national publications for post-Katrina news of any sort, let alone news about insurance. The project therefore evolved and took on three components.

The first is the blog, which offers commentary and original reporting on the rapidly unfolding political, legal, and corporate news affecting the insurance aftermath. The Insurance Transparency Project, as it came to be known, has grown to reach a small but important readership that includes key political, legal, and insurance industry figures, as well as academics, top media professionals, and residents of the Gulf area.

The second component is a data-collection project, which includes an effort to map insurance outcomes in a single neighborhood in Bay St. Louis, MS, superimposing data collected from individual families onto satellite maps.

This project is an attempt to redress what I see as the primary problem with the U.S. insurance system: An information imbalance, in which insurers—and only insurers—have access to the aggregate data related to the performance of the industry and of individual insurers. Under the current system, only insurers know how much they have paid per claim in the aftermath of Katrina. And this is the only relevant question. Data collection is key and is arduous, as it involves approaching, one at a time, individual families, many of whom are locked in legal struggles with their insurers and are often following legal advice (misguided, in my view) not to disclose their claim status. Most lawsuits against insurers are settled, and all settlements include confidentiality provisions, which protect only insurers. However, some neighborhoods have banded together to share information. I am working with one such neighborhood group to collect data from two or three dozen families. I plan to travel to the area on September 1, 2007, to attend a quarterly meeting of the group and hopefully complete the data collection.

The third and most important component is a book. Reporting on the insurance industry post-Katrina, I realized that the industry's response to the 2005 disaster was only, in fact, the tip of a much larger story about the U.S. insurance system. The industry's response in the Gulf, and the enormous amount of conflict that resulted, is far from a one-time problem, but is of a piece with the insurance industry's response to disasters dating back to at least Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and extending through tornadoes in Oklahoma in 1999, the terror attacks of 2001, Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and the four-hurricane season in Florida in 2004.

What's more, consumers' conflicts with insurers extend far beyond so-called property/casualty lines of insurance to encompass disability care, long-term health care, the well-documented problems with the health insurance system, and into commercial coverage—where even sophisticated, well-heeled corporations find themselves locked in legal struggles for years to force insurers to perform, just as thousands of Gulf-area families are doing right now. The book will trace the evolution of the industry to explain how it has come to its current state of crisis, in which insurers posted record profits in 2005 and 2006, even as an entire region's economy remains frozen because of skyrocketing insurance rates and unpaid claims.


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