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Insurance issues increasingly emotional

Race is one of those issues that is never far from the surface in Mississippi. Decades after the Civil Rights movement forever changed our nation and state for the better, black and white remains a powerful force shaping business, education, community and political issues. We are often united or divided by our own perspectives on race and the perceived self-interests wrapped into them.

But, and somewhat in jest, I’d like to suggest that our state faces a new force posing unprecedented complexities and devastating long-term consequences. Yes, fellow Mississippians, this increasingly divisive element is insurance.

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Since Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Coast and headed north through the state, Mississippians have had an up close and personal lesson in tragedy and loss.

An untold number of homes and businesses were destroyed. Lives were lost. Thousands have been forever changed.
And a year and a half after the August 2005 storm roared into our lives, the long road to recovery and rebuilding remains elusive. MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton is still living in a FEMA trailer as she searches for a contractor to finish the reconstruction of her Gulfport home. I have been amazed by her resiliency and tenacity, and of course her situation isn’t unique. Somehow, amidst all of the chaos, construction and change, the Coast is coming back.

However, access to affordable insurance remains the greatest obstacle for homeowners and the business community as the comeback tries to build momentum. The ongoing access and affordability issue is complex, and every side makes important points in advocating and advancing its point of view. There are many stakeholders in this debate: policyholders, large insurance companies, small businesses, your local insurance agent. On it goes. And don’t think that this is only about the Coast. It is a Mississippi problem that demands a Mississippi solution.

In the middle of it all is George Dale, the longest serving elected insurance commissioner in the country. Embattled and imperfect perhaps, but I believe that Commissioner Dale is working hard to keep a viable insurance market in the state. His critics are welcome to disagree with my assessment, but I hope that we can find a little common ground when it comes to the attack ad published a few weeks ago.

If you missed that ad, I’ll just say that it involved the commissioner, lipstick and a pig, along with a few insurance industry executives. You can see the point. Published a few Sunday mornings ago, a friend of mine brought it up that afternoon, while we watched our daughters play soccer. His take? The ad was tacky, over the line. And he’s right on target. That ad is an example of everything that is wrong with the insurance debate we have underway and with politics, in general.

Making a connection

Obviously, my earlier comparison of the current insurance situation in the state to the struggle for equal rights for all of our citizens doesn’t really work well. The violence and terror of that era are almost unimaginable to those of us young enough to have only studied it as history. But here’s the connection between the two: Ultimately, reasonable people seeing enough common ground come together and make the situation better. It isn’t easy — no quick fixes — and years later we’re still working on it. But it’s better — and improving.

During troubled times, leaders emerge from the business community. It happened in the 1960s. Let’s hope that it happens now. The stakes in the insurance game are immeasurably high. Too high for low road politics to become the driving force behind the debate.

Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at jlaird@msbusiness.com.

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