Four vying to become Delaware insurance commissioner

DOVER –– Although two months remain until the general election, four candidates are focused on the Sept. 13 primary, all vying to become Delaware’s next insurance commissioner.

The position may be more important than ever with the recent implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Delaware’s rankings as one of the most expensive state for both health care and prescription drugs.

On the Democrats’ ballot will be incumbent Karen Weldin Stewart facing New Castle County sheriff Trinidad Navarro.

Ms. Weldin Stewart, Delaware’s 25th insurance commissioner was elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012 after vying for the office since 2000.

“Insurance is what I do. It’s what I’ve done for most of my career and I’d been training for the office for years,” she said. “I always knew that I wanted to finish out my career by helping the people of Delaware and for me, this is the best way to do that.”

Karen Weldin Stewart

Karen Weldin Stewart

Her journey to becoming insurance commissioner started in 2000. She lost the 2000 general election to incumbent Donna Lee Williams. In 2004, Ms. Weldin Stewart lost the primary race to Matt Denn who would go on to win the general election.

She eventually won the position in 2008 and 2012. If elected in November, this would be the 67-year-old’s third term.

Although she has been criticized for running for a third term, Ms. Weldin Stewart said she’s choosing to run again for several reasons.

“Firstly I’m in good health so there’s no problem with that, there are many changes and challenges on the horizon like tweaks with the ACA and there are some insurance companies going bankrupt and both these will affect Delawareans and I think I’m the best one to handle these complicated changes,” she said.

Her background in the insurance field includes serving as an insurance regulator and vice president of Reinsurance Solutions International a subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan. She now serves on several committees including the Delaware Health Care Commission.

Although the ACA has made coverage available to more Americans, the implementation has been difficult and Ms. Weldin Stewart said more is left to be done to lower rates and ensure that they stay affordable.

“I stand committed to continue working with my partners including but not limited to Delaware’s Federal delegation, the Department of Health and Social Services and others to meet the challenges of the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

Ms. Weldin Stewart also wants to stay to improve and continue the progress she says the office has made during her tenure.

“There are so many things I’m proud of, especially our revamped Consumer Service Unit and the recovery rates we’ve been able to achieve,” she said. “We have been able to recover 28 percent more for Delawareans than under previous insurance commissioners and we’re looking forward to seeing our recoveries increase even more.”

Other accomplishments she lists are saving businesses over $61 million in premium expenses through the Workplace Safety Program, providing free health insurance counseling for over 42,000 Delawareans with Medicare and collecting almost $654 million in premium taxes.

Although an incumbent, Ms. Weldin Stewart has an obstacle in making it to the general race –– 46-year-old Bear

Trinadad Navarro

Trinadad Navarro

resident Trinidad Navarro.

Mr. Navarro was a licensed insurance agent before serving as a New Castle County Police officer for two decades. He has served as the New Castle County Sheriff since being elected in 2010.

Mr. Navarro said getting into the election he was well aware of the upper hand Ms. Weldin Stewart holds as an incumbent but after doing thorough research about the office and Ms. Weldin Stewart’s record that he stands a chance in winning the primary.

“For the last seven-plus years, she’s allowed Delaware to be bullied by insurance companies and Delaware deserves better,” he said. “Highmark wanted to raise its rates 30 percent this year and the commissioner says she saved Delaware money by only allowing Highmark to increase to 15 percent. Before this year, their rates had increase 100 percent over the previous five. No one is ‘saving money’ when rates increase.”

Mr. Navarro explained that insurance companies have to pay a 2 percent premium tax to the office so revenue goes up every time an increase happens.

“This is basically the same as a toll operator working at the Delaware Memorial Bridge and saying at the end of the day that they saved Delaware $20,000,” he said. “It’s not a savings when rates are going up and the money is coming straight from Delawarean’s pockets.”

Although all other candidates focused only on health insurance, Mr. Navarro addressed automobile insurance as well, especially discriminatory rates based on credit scores.

“In Delaware, the average annual cost of car insurance for someone with very good credit is $1,600 but for someone with poor credit, they’re paying twice as much –– about $3,200 a year when clearly, these people can’t afford that. The insurance commissioner is supposed to be an advocate for those bullied by the insurance industry, and the office isn’t doing it’s job,” he said. “As insurance commissioner, I’d work with the general assembly to change credit-based rates. People should only be charged for car insurance based on their driving record, not credit. The same goes for age. People’s rates increase as they age, simply because they’re getting older, These are people who aren’t going to a job every day and on average are driving shorter distances than the average driver, yet they’re paying more for insurance.”

He pointed out the wasteful ways in which the current office spends its budget coming from both the state and collected revenue, most notably pointing out travel.

“Due to the financial trouble Delaware has been in, Gov. Markell put a limit on state travel but that either doesn’t apply to the insurance commissioner’s office or they just don’t care,” he said. “Either way, it’s not setting a good example to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel when our rates are still going up and the people are struggling to pay.”

Mr. Navarro said according to records, Ms. Weldin Stewart has spent upwards of $500,000 on travel during her tenure. The travel included eight trips to Europe, one of which was first class with her ticket costing more than $6,000.

“Ms. Weldin Stewart’s predecessor, Matt Denn never left the state. He never showed this type of unnecessary, wasteful spending, but aside from travel, the office is run inefficiently,” he said. “Our office runs on a budget of $24 million –– the same budget as Pennsylvania, a state with a population 10 times larger and an office staff four times larger. So much of the money wasted is spent on actuaries and other insurance professional out of state. About $15 million of the budget is spent out of state and a $600,000 no-bid contract went to Texas. If we are spending this much money, as much as possible should stay in Delaware. We should be hiring our own residents and not people from all over the country.”

Candidates on the right

On the Republican side, northerner Jeffrey Cragg is facing southerner George Parish. Neither is venturing into the election without political experience.

George Parish

George Parish

Mr. Parish served two terms as Sussex County Clerk of the Peace and after realizing how the unsustanibility of the insurance industry is impacting Delawareans, the 75-year-old Long Neck resident threw his hat in the ring because he believes the status quo must go.

“I think everyone is discouraged by the high and increasing cost of health insurance,” he said. “The rates are unsustainable, and some people can’t even afford the insurance they already have. We need reform at the state level because what we’re doing isn’t helping the residents of Delaware. The status quo must go.”

Mr. Parish’s top suggestions for cutting costs are encouraging a more competitive market in Delaware, offering waivers for Medicaid patients who choose to purchase insurance either through a private insurer or the marketplace and allowing employers to make tax-free contributions for health premiums directly purchased by employees.

He expressed concern about Ms. Weldin Stewart running for a third term, as he’s a strong believer in term limits.

“I only served as Clerk of the Peace for two terms because I don’t think anyone should be able to stay in political office for years and years,” he said. “If elected, I will work to make sure a term limit is put in place for the office.”

Other faults Mr. Parish pointed out with the current office align with points made by Mr. Navarro like spending too much money out of state and Ms. Weldin Stewart’s campaign collecting its majority of contributions from out of state.

According to Mr. Navarro, more than 80 percent of Ms. Weldin Stewart’s campaign fund is from out of state contributions.

“The office of the insurance commissioner is supposed to be the largest consumer protection agency in the state but to me, it doesn’t seem like the majority of Delawareans are being protected,” he said.

Mr. Parish’s Republican opponent Jeff Cragg is running with emphasis both on his party involvement and professional experience in the insurance industry.

The 55-year-old started out his political work as a member of the New Castle County Board of Elections and worked his way up the Republican party ladder, eventually assuming the position of chairman of the state party.

In 2012 he was recruited by party members to run for governor –– a race he lost, earning only 28.6 percent of the vote against three other candidates including Gov. Jack Markell –– but his campaign for insurance commissioner may better fit his skills as he possesses 24 years of experience in insurance company management at companies such as Northwestern National Life, Mutual of Omaha, Provident Indemnity Life, Employers Reinsurance, A-G Administrators, Inc. and Academic Risk.

“The fact of the matter is that we have a race with four candidates and two of them have very little or no formal education in insurance,” he said. “Insurance is very complicated. Electing one of those two would be like putting just an average person into a major league baseball game. The learning curve is just too steep for them to achieve anything.”

Insurance Jeff Cragg

Jeff Cragg

Although Mr. Cragg did not criticize Ms. Weldin Stewart’s experience in the insurance industry, he did point out his disagreement with how she carries out the duties of the office.

“In my opinion, she has been far too passive and quiet. The insurance commissioner is essentially a referee to make sure everyone is playing fair and by the rules,” he said. “And when you have a lenient referee, the game is bound to get messy and that’s the situation we find ourselves in right now.”

Ms. Weldin Stewart has levied more than $6 million in fines ($3.6 for non-compliance of mandates) since taking office but Mr. Cragg doesn’t think that goes far enough.

“All of us are feeling the brunt of her lenient policies. Delaware citizens need a change in the way we approach insurance regulation in the state that puts consumers first,” he said. “Skyrocketing consumer healthcare costs are a direct result of a shell game played by the incumbent and the industry, and it is time that we make the system work for Delaware citizens.”

Delaware’s primary election is Sept. 13.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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