By Miriam Raftery
October 6, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) – Who gets elected as California’s next insurance commissioner is important for East County, where many residents face problems getting fire insurance and where recent tremors have heightened concerns over earthquake insurance costs. The new commissioner will also oversee healthcare reform implementation and regulation of rates for auto, health, and homeowner's insurance costs.
Dave Jones, a legislator who authored major bills to curb abuses by the insurance industry and who refused insurance industry donations in this race, is running for the job. Now the insurance industry has been revealed using back-door tactics to fund multi-million dollar TV ads for Jones' opponent, Mike Villines.
“Through the California Chamber of Commerce, companies like Anthem Blue Cross have already spent almost $2 million running TV commercials for my opponent,” Jones states. “Why? Because they know that I am fighting their outrageous health insurance rate increases.”
When Anthem Blue Cross announced a 39% increase in premiums, Jones launched a legislative investigation that “disclosed billions of dollars that Anthem Blue Cross and its parent company were making at the expense of California policy holders,” Jones recalled. He also introduced legislation to regulate health insurance rates, just as California already regulates auto, property and casualty insurance. “My opponent voted against this critical legislation and it was heavily opposed by the insurance industry,” added Jones, who has pledged not to accept any money from the insurance industry for his campaign.
The insurance industry was the top contributor to Villnes’ 2008 Assembly campaign, shelling out a whopping $158,845 to his campaign. He also took $46,000 in insurance industry donations during his 2006 campaign for Assembly.
Villines has stated that he would not take insurance money in this race.
“I believe it is a conflict of interest to take contributions from the very industry I would regulate if I was elected to this office,” Villines said.
However, he has used over $30,000 in insurance industry contributions on his campaign, according to the California Watch blog, a government watchdog site. The money was leftover from prior campaigns when Villines ran for Assembly in 2008, as well as early contributions from a since-abandoned State Senate campaign fund for 2014. Villines has indicated he does not view use of these older insurance industry donations as a conflict of interest.
Jones also took much smaller contributions from the insurance industry ($14,762 in 2008 and $13,300 in 2006 for his Assembly campaigns).
Those amounts pale, however, compared to the more than $2 million that the California Chamber of Commerce has spent on its advertizing blitz favoring Villines—funded in large part by insurance industry donations. The ads tout Villines’ record on supporting the Chamber’s pro-business policies.
According to the Sacramento Bee, which endorsed Jones, “The state’s insurance commission will likely play a leading role in ensuring that California becomes a model for expanding health coverage, while keeping costs down. There is even talk of giving the insurance commissioner the authority to directly regulate rates charged by health insurance companies. Given the stakes involved, voters would be wise to pick a candidate with an active interest in health care reform—one who is the least beholden to health insurance companies.”
The insurance commissioner oversees all types of insurance, from auto to homeowners’ to health, also investigates insurance fraud, earthquake and flood insurance policies, and assures insurance companies are solvent to pay claims.
As insurance commission, Jones said he would monitor carefully how the state establishes a health care insurance exchange to comply with new federal laws expanding coverage to people who lack health insurance. “We need to make sure the insurers don’t just cherry-pick healthy people outside of the exchanges,” he said, noting such an action would increase the proportion of sick people in the exchanges and jack up rates, potentially forcing some carriers to withdraw from the exchanges.
Villines has said he would combat insurance fraud, find (unspecified) solutions for people with pre-existing conditions who can’t get health insurance, and emphasize fair competition in the industry, among other priorities if elected. He has also touted his support for job creation and economy recovery—issues that an insurance commissioner does not directly address in his responsibilities.
Jones, a Democrat, has carried bills to ban gender discrimination in healthcare pricing and improve children’s health coverage, as well as other consumer legislation on issues ranging from flood control to affordable housing.
Villines, a Republican, opposed the federal healthcare bill and has voted against many health measures in his career in the Legislature, including Jones’ AB 119, which banned discrimination based on gender in healthcare pricing. He voted no on AB 2244, a bill to prohibit insurance companies from denying healthcare coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. Jones voted for the bill to protect children.
Villines served as Republican leader in the Assembly for two and a half years. He prevously was an aide to former Governor Wilson and chief-of-staff for former State Senator Chuck Poochigan. He received a “Profiles in Courage” award for his actions on the state budget and holds a B.S. in political science from Fresno State University.
Jones chairs the Assembly Health Committee and was named 2008 “Consumer Champion” by the California Consumers Federation. A graduate of Harvard law school, he also won the “Leadership Award” from the Western Center on Law and Poverty.