Monday, February 16, 2009

Texas Farmers Insurance Co. is suing the state to block the release of documents

By RYAN McNEILL / The Dallas Morning News

Texas Farmers Insurance Co. is suing the state to block the release of documents to The Dallas Morning News that could give insight into how it charges consumers for its homeowners policies.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 3 in Travis County, followed a decision by the state attorney general's office ordering the Texas Department of Insurance to release the documents. The insurance department was also ordered to release similar documents filed by Allstate Fire and Casualty Co., which did not sue to block the action.

The News requested rate filings and supporting documentation for the three major homeowners insurance companies in Texas – State Farm Lloyds Co., Allstate and Farmers. The insurance department released only parts of Allstate's and Farmers' filings that had not been marked "confidential" by the companies; it released all of State Farm's filings, none of which had been marked "confidential."

At issue is how much insurance companies can use trade-secrets exemptions in Texas' open-records laws to keep information from the public. The requested documents show mathematical formulas and other information the companies use as a model to determine what to charge customers.

Farmers argued that release of the documents, provided to the insurance department as agency officials sought to determine whether insurance rates were proper, would cause irreparable financial harm by making "valuable trade secrets" available to competitors.

"Essentially what we're being asked to do is like the University of Texas having to share its football playbook with Texas A&M," said Michelle Levy, a Farmers spokeswoman.

Pushing transparency?

Consumer advocates worry that transparency is at stake.

"What are they hiding here?" asked Alex Winslow, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Texas Watch. "What is it they don't want the public to know about how they're setting their rates?"

The Texas Department of Insurance initially refused to release any part of Allstate and Farmers filings that were marked "confidential" without a ruling from the Texas attorney general's office.

Winslow said his consumer watchdog group has found that "insurance companies will stamp everything they file with the Department of Insurance as proprietary and confidential, even if it's explicit in the statute as being subject to open records."

On Jan. 15, the attorney general ordered the records' release, ruling that the Legislature intended for the public to have access to the documents because they were part of the insurance department's review of insurance premiums under the state's file-and-use system.

State insurance officials insist that they release what is allowable, while upholding the law.

"When it comes to transparency, we push as much information out there as we possibly can," said Texas Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin.

But the executive director of the Center for Economic Justice, an Austin-based advocacy group, disagreed.

"Insurers are hiding what they're doing, and regulators are being complicit," said Birny Birnbaum.

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