A Visit from Insurance Commissioner Lara

By J'Amy Brown   |   August 22, 2019
California State Assemblymember Monique Limón welcomes influential California State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara to Montecito, where he met with a handful of Montecito residents to learn about local insurance issues

Q: I am a Montecito resident, still frustrated by my Thomas Fire and Debris Flow unsettled insurance claim. I heard the California State Insurance Commissioner visited Montecito recently. How come the public didn’t know about this public official’s visit? I would have loved to have bent his ear.

A: On August 9, Assemblywoman Monique Limón brought Montecito a gift – and the question lingering is whether we got “Limón-Aid” or just lemons? Specifically, will Limón’s gift bag result in actual localized insurance improvements or was it merely a loving pat on our disaster-tousled heads?

To her credit, Limón successfully got California State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara to step foot inside Montecito. The “please visit” flag has been hoisted long before Lara took office in January with zero response until last week. You’d think Montecito’s 524 disaster-damaged tagged homes might have generated plenty of insurance claims, along with the state’s insurance commissioner’s “need-to-see” response. After all, he’s elected to regulate the insurance industry on the consumers’ behalf.

The real lemon on the wound, however, came after he got here. Through no fault of the Commissioner, the visit was not booked in a suitably-sized conference hall – a room where he could address the sizable number Montecito insurance-grieved constituents who might have wanted access. Instead, the high-ranking elected insurance regulator found himself cloistered in a tiny room, without publicity, meeting with only a handful of Montecito residents.

For his part, Lara’s Deputy Insurance Commissioner Byron Tucker said the workshop stop in Montecito was the first step on a fact-finding tour. “We are starting to get a clear picture of what residents are experiencing and we got a good launching point. This was an introductory meeting to access local issues, to get a framework,” Tucker said.

Limón explained the limited gathering was necessitated by a unique calendar opportunity that allowed her to quickly grab Lara for at least a small, local conversation. She said she heard Lara would be at a staff training session in Buellton ending on August 9. Knowing how difficult it has been to schedule him for a Montecito visit, Limón grabbed his reins and dragged Lara to an August Montecito Association (MA) sub-committee meeting.

“I regret anyone was left out but I had to decide between taking this limited opportunity or wait – and I didn’t know how long that would be,” Limón explained in an interview after the event. She said the Commissioner’s visit started to become a reality in July, so she looked for who she could pull together on short notice. 

Among those with flexible enough calendars to ink in a meeting with only a few weeks’ notice was the Association’s four-month old Insurance Committee. It is made up of three MA board members, one community member, one member of the First District staffer and our Montecito Fire Chief.

With only four months of MA Insurance Committee experience under their belts, we hope these neighbors are fast learners and skilled advocates for our insurance needs because, when Lara rode into town, they spoke for all of us!

Who Was There

The full list of attendees remains confidential, I am told, and for insurance-claimant privacy reasons because some participants spoke to Lara one-on-one about their cases. Published public photos reveal Montecito resident Abe Powell, executive director of the Bucket Brigade, and past MA president Beno Budgor were at the table, along with several other less visible (and therefore left-anonymous) residents. The remainder of the seats were taken by 20 or so state staffers.

That means, by my unaudited count, after 19 months of pining for his presence, about a dozen Montecito residents got access to this highly influential state government official. Forgive me if I express some skepticism, but after haranguing politicians and speaking out for community protection for 21 years, I tend to fret about lost opportunities and/or being covered in a fog of political platitudes.

I wonder if they discussed how many Montecito residents are still navigating the claims pipeline with yet-unresolved complaints. Will that payout quagmire hold up rebuilding? Are claimants being fairly reimbursed for Montecito’s high building costs? Are they getting 100 percent payout or ten-cents on the dollar? Which insurance companies are living up to their commitments, and which are not?

I hear insurance horror stories daily and wonder if Montecito’s real and ongoing insurance issues are being addressed and resolved by the Insurance Committee or the state commissioner? Tucker notes that since 2011 the Insurance Commission hotline has received one million calls and helped retrieve $469 million in claims and premiums – so something positive is happening!

However, while rate increases and non-renewals, said to be Lara’s August 9 agenda focus, are important, even Lara says even the Department of Insurance doesn’t have the legal authority to tell insurers what level of risk they must write or where they must write insurance.

Opportunity Lost

Knowing that, did our community squander its opportunity by leaning toward an unsolvable state-directed agenda? Could we have better used Lara’s local time by forcing a discussion towards our local needs rebuilding reimbursements? 

There is still a lot of insurance-claim pain – so much pain some have just given up and walked away – and these retreats impact our community’s character. Our Insurance Commissioner should be educated by our strongest advocates and most skilled citizens and professionals so he and his department of 3,000 employees can help us satisfy Montecito’s unique situation. He needs to know we are not a one-size-fits-all kind of community.

Our past strength has historically come from a consensus-driven community voice – a drawback from an insulated, small-tent meeting. Sadly, in this case, the full community did not have the benefit of hearing and learning from each other, and that is a loss. Montecito didn’t just “happen,” it was carved out by a community of smart, forceful, experienced, and engaged neighbors listening to one another and then advocating with one unified voice. For that skill we all deserve to be in the tent!

Limón says she is encouraging Lara to return to Montecito for a more inclusive visit – and October dates are being tossed around. Lara is probably tired of hearing nitpicky individual claim woes – but, honestly, that is part of what he signed up for. That said, he should be relieved to know Montecito has the organizational skill to temper that individual-case emphasis, meaning his next Montecito meeting can be efficient – but still open to all. Let’s entice Commissioner Lara back to Montecito by promising to serve him lemonade – not lemons!


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