Insurers: Motorists could forgo coverage if premiums rise

Forcing motorists to pay higher auto insurance premiums for minimum bodily injury and property damage coverage would probably cause many drivers to go without any coverage at all. That was the conclusion that a representative of the automobile insurance industry gave members of a legislative study committee last week in Charleston.

Right now, drivers in West Virginia must have minimum coverage of $20,000 for bodily injury to one person, $40,000 for injury to two or more people and $10,000 for property damage.

During the 2013 regular session of the state legislature last winter, the state Senate considered a measure to raise those minimums to $25,000, $50,000 and $25,000. But while the legislation was endorsed by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, it died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Jill Rice, president of the West Virginia Insurance Federation, told lawmakers at last week’s hearing that passage of the higher minimum coverage would “have the effect of pushing people into the uninsured population.” She said it would increase premiums for drivers carrying minimum coverage by between $24 and $71 a year.

Rice predicted that this would be enough to cause many low-income drivers who have difficulty affording the current minimum coverage to simply drive without insurance. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said it is important before authorizing such a move to know how many drivers in West Virginia currently carry minimum coverage because and would be impacted.

Rice said about 17 percent of state drivers have minimum coverage. That figure likely includes “high-risk drivers” because 20-40-10 is the premium that they can pay, said Rice, responding to a question from Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion.

During the 2013 legislative session, trial lawyers supported the idea of higher minimums. They noted that the current minimums have been in place since 1979 and are “unrealistically low” compared to present-day costs for medical care and for automobile repair or replacement.

Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, was surprised that the insurance industry opposes an increase in the mandatory minimum coverage. He said he would expect the industry to want to sell more insurance. He said the insurance companies that provide his business “always want me to have more coverage.”

Meanwhile, there are about 170,000 veterans in West Virginia, giving the state among the highest veteran populations in the United States. A recent report found West Virginia also has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country.

West Virginia University professor Joseph Scotti told members of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Veterans Affairs last week that many of these veterans can’t “make themselves get help.” Others don’t believe treatment will be helpful.

Scotti, who runs an organization that helps veterans to assist veterans with a successful transition back into civilian life, presented data from a 2012 survey of more than 1,200 West Virginia veterans. It revealed that more than one of every five West Virginia veterans is a suicide risk. Nearly half of this state’s veterans meet the criteria for depression and about one of every four suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, the co-chair of the Veteran Affairs Interim Committee, said legislators need to emphasise to veterans that there is “nothing wrong with getting treatment.”

Finally, only five states have no regulations to deal with people who own exotic animals such as tigers or alligators — and West Virginia is one of those states, a legislative interim committee was told last week. As a result, state wildlife officials have no idea about the number of these animals. That said, there have been reports of alligators, a water buffalo and a lion escaping from their owners.

Last year, legislators passed a bill to require permits for private owners who house animals like tigers or lions in West Virginia. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill on the grounds that it was too expensive to regulate. The Division of Natural Resources want to pass a law in the upcoming legislative session that would establish a commission to define which animals are banned.


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