Lawmakers want to keep credit scores out of insurance

Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- When state Sen. John Cowdery's daughter's insurance rates skyrocketed after she got a new truck last year, he was outraged.

He said his daughter had a clean driving record, but the insurance company jacked up her premiums because of her credit score.

As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee last year, Cowdery was in a position to do something about it. He introduced legislation to ban the use of credit scoring in setting insurance rates.

The bill did not make it through the Legislature last year, but Cowdery, R-Anchorage, is introducing the measure again. He's co-sponsoring it with Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

Reps. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, and Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, are introducing similar bills in the House. The legislative session starts Jan. 21.

The lawmakers say the practice unfairly discriminates against people who may be good insurance risks, despite not having great credit scores.

The insurance industry argues, however, that there is a statistical correlation between bad credit scores and higher insurance risks and not using the scores would penalize those who are a lower risk.

After his daughter's case prompted him to investigate credit scoring, Cowdery said, he began hearing from others whose rates had risen because of the practice.

''People came out of the woodwork talking about this,'' Cowdery said.

The use of credit scoring has become increasingly common in the insurance industry, and about two dozen states considered limiting it last year, Elton said. Washington state passed a law restricting the practice.

Elton said credit scoring can unfairly discriminate against people who may have poor credit for reasons unrelated to the home they own or their driving habits.

Minorities, rural residents, senior citizens and groups that do not believe in using credit for religious reasons are especially at risk, Elton said.

''For example, in rural Alaska where you have seasonal employment you often deal with a grocery store kind of off-the-cuff, and you get carried until employment happens the next season,'' Elton said. Also at risk are those overwhelmed by high medical bills, he said.

Nicole Mahrt, a spokeswoman for American Insurance Association, defended the practice. Insurance companies do still use traditional factors, such as driving history and age, to set rates, but they've found credit history is also useful, she said.

''It statistically is very effective in predicting losses,'' she said. ''So essentially it helps people that are a better risk not subsidize those that are higher risks.''

Insurance companies can account for factors that would unfairly brand someone a bad risk, such as those who never buy on credit, and look for other information in setting their rates, Mahrt said.

Also, those who develop the models for insurance companies are trying to find a way to pull medical bills out of the formula, so a serious illness does not unfairly push up auto and homeowners insurance rates, Mahrt said.

Different insurance companies give more weight to some credit factors than others, so consumers can shop around if they do not like the rates they are quoted, she added.

Elton said while there may be a statistical correlation between credit risk and insurance claims, in practice using credit scores can lead to bizarre outcomes.

An insurance agent relayed an anecdote about a person with a driving under the influence conviction paying less for insurance than a person with a bad credit score, although both drove identical vehicles, Elton said.

Elton said he believes the legislation has a good chance of passing this year because supporters began educating their colleagues about it last year.

Cowdery will hold a more powerful position this year, as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which decides when other lawmakers' bill are scheduled for floor action. He said he would not use that position to pressure other lawmakers into supporting his bill.

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