Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Time For Public Auto Insurance

This decision couldn't have come at a better time. Once again the Tired Old Tories tried to pull the auto insurance companies fat out of the fire and in doing so of course passed a law that blamed the victims.

Taking a page out of the Republican handbook about tort law cases, and blaming trial lawyers, the Tories capped claims rather than doing anything about out of control profiteering by the insurance companies.

That law was tossed out last Friday. Already we could be seeing increases in insurance premiums while a public insurance program would actually save Albertan's hundreds of dollars per person.

The insurance industry has suggested that if the legislation is not eventually upheld, it could lead to a rate increase of $200 a year per policy holder.

Of course the Tories will appeal this decision wasting more taxpayers money and solving nothing but doing the bidding of their masters; the insurance companies. And it means they will try to kill it as an election issue. But they will be as successful with that as with their appeal.

A senior Tory official confirms that candidates have been sent a letter telling them they're not supposed to talk about the auto insurance issue since it's before the courts. (The Canadian Press)

It would have been a perfect political day for Stelmach, had a curious e-mail not arrived in my in-box.

The e-rocket was from "Alberta Progressive Conservative Campaign Headquarters" and PC candidates were ordered to "delete and destroy any copies."

In it the "Campaign Team" reminded them of last week's court decision ruling Ralph Klein's flawed auto insurance reforms "unconstitutional" and warned candidates they "must not comment on this decision."

It isn't hard to understand the political sensitivity over the goof, especially after the premier admitted yesterday that "there may be tremendous pressure on increasing rates."

Neil Waugh, Edmonton Sun.

The plaintiffs in the court challenge argued that the insurance industry in Alberta had manufactured the premium crisis by raising rates unnecessarily. They entered evidence into court that showed the insurance companies never lost money in the province; to the contrary, by the time the legislation was enacted in 2004 the insurance industry was well on its way to reaping record profits.

During the court case, Dennis Gartner, the province's superintendent of insurance during the reforms, admitted under oath that the government had no way of knowing how much money insurance companies were making.

After years of waffling, the Klein government finally acted on the controversy in 2004, imposing a $4,000 cap on soft-tissue-injury claims. Since then, personal injury lawyers among others have argued that the ruling -- seen as a sop to the well-connected private insurance lobby -- robbed many accident victims of their basic Charter rights.

Needless to say, the government disagreed, maintaining that its reforms helped all Albertans and didn't affect anyone's liberty. Furthermore, it rejected out of hand the notion that high premiums be tackled with a public auto-insurance scheme, ironically at a time B.C.'s conservative Campbell government was abandoning talk of privatizing the Insurance Corporation of B.C, having discovered that public insurance seemed to work best for taxpayers.

But last Friday, Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Justice Neil Wittmann exploded the $4,000 cap, deeming it unconstitutional. As well, he found the existing Minor Injury Regulation discriminates against a specific group of injured Albertans. Wittmann didn't mince words, either, summarily rejecting the government's contention that the legislation was designed to help victims.

Instead, he ruled, the so-called reforms unfairly sacrificed a single group of Albertans "at the altar of reducing insurance premiums."

Now, as anyone financially responsible for a teenager appreciates, the word "high" didn't do justice to premiums faced by some drivers under the old system. "Astronomical" was closer to the mark, and the relief spurred on by the 2004 legislation has been welcome. But the premium grid that did most of the work of changing such inequities is itself unlikely to be affected by Wittmann's ruling.

There will be no waiting period, as requested by the Stelmach government.

Alberta Finance has announced it is studying the ruling, but that shouldn't take long. As of today, the $4,000 cap is no more. Indeed, virtually every argument put forward by the cap-smashing plaintiffs was accepted by the court.

Without the law - and its rate-increase controls - in place the public faces the prospect of increased insurance premiums, Premier Ed Stelmach said Monday.

But opponents decried the government's stance, noting the ruling also clearly indicates that the insurance industry was enjoying record profits at the time and had everything to do with charging the public for bad long-term investments, said NDP Leader Brian Mason.

Mason's party has pledged to introduce public insurance if elected March 3, noting that the most recent Canadian Consumers Association study shows a public system like that in B.C. would save the average Alberta motorist about $400 per year.

"The premier can run from this, but he can't hide," said Mason. "He allowed an industry that was making record profits to run roughshod over the public and to deny injured Albertans their basic rights."


"Eventually this will come home to roost ... the government clearly screwed the people and took the side of big insurance over Alberta families."


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