NC Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey will no longer have a dual role as the state’s fire marshal come Jan. 1.
Under the state budget passed last week and part of S.B. 363, an independent Office of the State Fire Marshal will be created and housed within the Department of Insurance. The insurance commissioner would appoint the fire marshal and would need to be confirmed by the legislature.
The state insurance commissioner has served as the state fire marshal since the 1940s.
The change doesn’t sit well with Causey, who said in a press release that while he appreciates the 7% pay increase for state employees over two years, neither he nor any of the state’s top firefighter associations were consulted about the change, which he says will negatively impact the fire service and volunteer fighters across the state.
“I especially detest the way these items were added without input from the department, the State Firefighters Association, county fire marshals, or fire chiefs,” he said. “I have yet to meet the first person outside of the General Assembly that favors an independent State Fire Marshal. These needless changes have upset and angered the hardworking firefighters who have volunteered and dedicated their time to improving the ISO ratings at more than 80 percent of our fire departments.”
Causey told Carolina Journal in a phone interview Tuesday that he hasn’t met one person across the state who said this was a good idea.
“They’ve all said what is going on and why are they messing with the office of state fire marshal,” he said. “Everything’s really good right now. I’ve had repeated comments from fire chiefs and long-time members of the fire service that have told me this is the best they’ve seen it in 30 or 40 years.”
Tim Bradley, executive director of the North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association (NCSFA), told Carolina Journal in a telephone interview Tuesday that they were unaware of any changes coming.
“We didn’t really understand the correction, plus, the fire insurance programs are in Chapter 58 in General Statutes, and they reference the Department of Insurance,” he said. “They don’t specifically reference the state fire marshal, so it just seems to be a little confusing to us about how all of it’s going to work.”
Another provision in the budget would change how the Firefighters’ Health Benefits pilot program insurance benefits will be administered. The program was started in 2021 to help firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
Currently, the insurance is administered by a third-party company. That will switch to being handled in-house by the Department of Insurance.
The budget allots $5 million to the program for the next two years, provided that 5% will be used to hire additional NCDOI staff to run the program.
Bradley said while they appreciate that legislators funded the program, they are concerned with the change since the third-party company has experience dealing with cancer insurance while the NCDOI does not.
“If they (third-party company) got a legitimate claim, they would get claim checks out in a week or two,” he told CJ. “That’s just not going to happen in the state government as much as they try, things just don’t work that quickly. I think the service level may drop significantly.
Bradley points out that while it isn’t a criticism of the Department of Insurance, they usually just regulate insurance and aren’t used to handling things like analyzing and processing claims.
Causey said the General Assembly also made changes within the budget to the Workers’ Compensation system, which gives the NCDOI more oversight but takes away commissions from 185 insurance agents across the state that have been servicing accounts and working with firefighters for decades.
“It’s not a whole lot of money, so I’m just not sure why the legislature is going to tinker with something that doesn’t need to be tinkered with,” he said, also pointing out that the change was done without giving the department any extra funding to handle the increased workload.
Another thing that has Causey upset was the insertion of the change of oversight of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association into his agency bill, S.B. 452. The bill took language from S.B. 636. The change would now give the Superintendent of Public Instruction the authority over the association.
“The legislators stick things in without asking us anything about it, they stick in their pet project,” he said. “I guess they needed a vehicle to put language when they’re trying to get something passed. But, it’s just common courtesy to talk to the agency head and say this is what we need, would you have any objection or would it be all right, but we don’t get any of that.”
Causey said everyone he talked to thought S.B. 363 was just a “shot across the bow to send him a message for standing up to Blue Cross.”
Causey spoke out against H.B. 346, Reorganization & Economic Development Act in April. The bill allowed Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina and Delta Dental to create a holding company in which it could move policyholder money. Causey said the bill was a bad idea, mainly because the company would be deregulated.
The bill was signed into law by Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper in June.
Still, Causey hopes the legislature will reverse course on their decision and return the role of state fire marshal back to the state insurance commissioner.
“I’m hopeful that they will come to their senses and realize they don’t want to alienate the fire departments all across this state going forward,” he told CJ. “It would be in the best interest of the people and the public and the fire departments to go ahead and fix this problem in technical corrections, and they have the power to do that if they want to.”