The race for the office of insurance commissioner pits Assemblyman Dave Jones (D- Sacramento), a prolific legislator who has clashed often with insurers, against Assemblyman Mike Villines (R-Clovis), a former GOP leader who positions himself as a more conciliatory force. Just as important as the contrast in styles, though, is the difference in their expertise. Jones, who's been chairman of the Assembly's health and judiciary committees, demonstrates a much better grasp of the details and complexities of insurance regulation. The Times urges a vote for Jones.
The insurance commissioner arguably wields more power over pocketbook issues than any other elected official in California, regulating premiums that consumers pay directly (for insurance on their homes and vehicles) and indirectly (for the coverage bought by businesses, the cost of which is ultimately passed on to them). The next commissioner will also play an important role in implementing the comprehensive healthcare reform law that Congress passed this year, making sure that consumers have enough information about their options and that insurers comply with new rules, including the federal caps on profits. At the same time, the commissioner will have to guard against insurers reducing their offerings within the state as new regulations kick in, as some are starting to do.
Jones would make protecting insurance buyers his top priority, scrutinizing premium increases and beefing up enforcement of the state's rules for insurance sales. He would also be an energetic supporter of the new healthcare law, whose provisions are encountering stiff resistance from some insurers. But Jones acknowledges the commissioner's obligation to work constructively with insurers in order to keep them in California, offering coverage in every market. The years Jones has spent working on insurance law in the Assembly should help him stay on the right side of the line between effective regulation and anti-corporate zealotry.
Like Jones, Villines stresses the consumer protection aspect of the commissioner's job. Rather than focusing on limiting insurers' profits, however, Villines' campaign has emphasized reducing their costs. He's put forth good ideas on that front, but they're no substitute for pushing back against rate hikes. He also has reservations about how the state is implementing the new healthcare law, such as the forthcoming insurance exchange that can negotiate with insurers for better deals.
With the healthcare industry trying to make the difficult transition to more efficient and effective medical care, the state needs an insurance commissioner who's well versed in the mechanics of the system and committed to fundamental reform. And with the economy sputtering, we need a commissioner who can protect consumers, small businesses and employers from excessive premiums without driving insurers out of the state. Dave Jones is the candidate best able to fulfill those demands.