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George Dale planning January job change — not retirement

Come January, for the first time in 32 years, George Dale will no longer be Mississippi’s Insurance Commissioner. But is Dale, 67, planning to retire?

“No,” Dale says. “I will just be changing jobs in January. I will not go home and retire. I will be doing something else, and there will probably be some announcement about that in the future.

“I run three to five miles every day. During the summertime, I keep up with over 20 yards of grass cutting for people. I’ve done that for years on weekends. I still play Senior Olympic basketball. I live a very active life. To all of the sudden walk away without that amount of activity is not something I’m planning on.

“I come from family of long livers. I have one uncle who lived to be 99 and another who lived to 94. I think a certain amount of long life is hereditary. The key to all of them living so long was they were active to the end. I intend to be active as long as I can. Will I be active as insurance commissioner? No. But I will be active doing something else. Keep in mind Ronald Reagan was elected president of the U.S. at 69 and re-elected the second time at 73.”

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, Dale had not planned on running for re-election. But after the storm, a number of people encouraged him to run because of his many years of experience.

Controversy over insurance companies’ failure to pay claims combined with soaring problems with insurance availability and affordability in South Mississippi after Katrina led to Dale’s defeat in the primary election. Dale’s opponents depicted him as being too cozy with the industry he was regulating.

And when the screaming stops…

Dale said perhaps he would have won re-election if he had been “a better politician.”

“Had I chosen to do as some politicians did, and that would be to scream and holler, blasting the insurance industry on every corner, probably I would have been perceived differently by some in the public,” Dale said. “But my contention is when the screaming and hollering is over, what have you accomplished? Some of those politicians who screamed and hollered the loudest have not gotten a single claim paid, have not decreased the cost of insurance one dime and have not gotten a single insurance company in here to write business. I feel like, behind the scenes, quietly, we did a lot of things that helped a lot of people, and I’m proud of that.

“I will admit the pressures of this job for the past two and a half years have been almost unbearable. But I’ll miss not being insurance commissioner because of the relationship I have developed with people all over the country that I may not see as often. Plus in this job, I never got tired of people telling me, ‘You know, you helped me.’ People would call me and say, ‘I called you in 1985 and you helped me. Now I have another problem. Will you help me?’ My career has been service oriented. That is the whole purpose of it. Probably I could have been a much better politician if I had done things differently. But in an office where the average term for insurance commissioner is 18 months, and I’ve been able to squeeze in 32 years, I did something right.”

No simple solutions

Dale said there are no easy solutions to the insurance problems being faced in coastal Mississippi and other disaster-prone areas. It perturbs him that people are advocating simple solutions to a very complex problem. “And it just doesn’t work that way,” he said.

There are two things he believes could be done to make insurance available and affordable for consumers. One is for the state or federal governments to subsidize the cost of insurance. That will be difficult to do because there are people in other areas of the country and of the state who feel like it would not be fair to subsidize the ability for people to live in a particular area.

Dale and other insurance commissioners representing coastal areas have advocated an all-perils policy backed by the federal government. But they have found that inland commissioners from states like Utah don’t think it is a good idea. And there are more Utahs than Mississippis. And when Dale speaks to civic groups north of Jackson, he said the first question often is, “Are you going to let my insurance rates go up because of those people who chose to live on the Gulf Coast?”

“Unfortunately, many people express their concern for the Coast and wish them well as long as it doesn’t cost them,” Dale said.

The second way rates are going to go down is to not have storms. Dale says the farther we are away from 2005 without a storm, the better the possibility of rates beginning to level out and go down.

“I’m just glad that I was not one of the candidates for insurance commissioner who promised the people on the Coast lower insurance rates overnight,” Dale said. “I don’t think that is going to happen, and I think you are going to have some upset people who were led to believe that the election was going to mean that rates were going down overnight. I wish they were. If it were easy, I would have already done it. I would have already reduced them.”

Accurate picture?

While there was undoubtedly some wrong doing on the part of insurance companies in refusing to pay claims, public perceptions that insurance companies widely failed to pay legitimate claims may not be accurate. Dale said with the few cases that have gone to court, some of those where policy holders won in front of a jury have been overturned on appeal.

“In some of the cases, the decision rendered was the correct decision because the insurance companies did wrong and should have to pay for what they were found guilty of,” Dale said. “But to say there has been a majority of cases that went to court rendered on behalf of the policy holders, that is probably not a correct statement. Only last week a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled State Farm’s interpretation of the wind and water clause in their policy was correct. So what that means is, based on that court decision, we got State Farm and other companies to pay more claims than were actually owed.

“In a lot of cases, if I were on a jury it would be impossible for me to rule against one of my neighbors who had lost everything. There was a case recently where the plaintiff admitted on the stand that he realized that some of the loss was attributed to water, and then the jury ruled that it was 100% wind. Let me be quick to say, it makes it sound like me saying consumers were all wrong. That isn’t true. There was some wrongdoing on insurance companies’ part. Absolutely. But there were many thousands of claims. Some of them are going to be handled incorrectly, and they were. One major company did a poll of their policyholders that had a claim, and the poll indicated 97% of their claimants were satisfied with their payment.”

Other issues important

Concerning other types of insurance in the state, the Department of Insurance has granted several rate decreases for automobile insurance in the past month. The cost of medical malpractice insurance continues to go down because of tort reform. And other forms of insurance such as life insurance continue to go down.

“There are so many forms of insurance that when someone makes a blanket statement that Mississippi insurance is the third highest in the U.S., that is just not true,” Dale said. “But that sounds good in campaigns.”

The high cost of health insurance and healthcare continues to be a national problem, one that is not limited to Mississippi. Dale said that is an issue that must be addressed on the national level.

“There are those who say the answer is some form of national insurance as is being promoted by Mrs. (Hillary) Clinton,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is, we are almost there anyhow. We have Medicaid for poor people, Medicare for old people and the CHIPs program for the uninsured children. So there are not many people left out there who aren’t under some type of governmental benefit program. There are a lot of things Congress could do in addressing that. One is to get a handle over the pharmaceutical industry, which they are reluctant to do because of their political involvement.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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