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Causey puts customer service at top of Insurance Department agenda

In interview with CJ, GOP insurance commissioner discusses plans to work with insurers and consumers and perhaps bring new discounts to N.C.

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, shown here at his office in Raleigh, wants to improve customer service in his department. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, shown here at his office in Raleigh, wants to improve customer service in his department. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

North Carolina’s new insurance commissioner, Republican Mike Causey, is the consummate perennial candidate.

His persistence finally paid off.

Causey, a Guilford County native, is no stranger to Raleigh insiders or to the state’s voters. He is a former insurance agency owner who most recently worked in the N.C. Department of Transportation as the state’s Adopt-a-Highway coordinator. He has worked as a lobbyist, representing a number of interests, including the Independent Auto Body Association, the Farmland and Open Space Conservation Fund, and Citizens for Healthcare Freedom.

Causey in November unseated incumbent Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, a Democrat. Causey also unsuccessfully sought the insurance commissioner’s post in 2000 and 2012. In 2014, he ran in a crowded field in an unsuccessful bid to become the GOP nominee for North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District.

Causey received an associate’s degree in engineering technology at Wake Technical College and studied engineering at UNC Charlotte. He received his undergraduate degree at High Point University.

Carolina Journal’s Barry Smith and Don Carrington sat down with Causey in his office and talked about his goals, insurance rates, the Rate Bureau, Obamacare, and social media.

Q: What are your top goals as commissioner of insurance?

A: The No. 1 goal is to make the department more user-friendly. We have a good team of people on the phones now. We may add additional people to the call centers as they’re needed. We’re looking at all the different departments and streamlining in areas where we might have duplication. It looks like we have that to a large degree. The employees that are here now, for the most part, we want them happy to be here every day, and when they’re greeting the public, make sure they have a smile on their face, and a willingness to help attitude.

Q: Are there any other goals you want to talk about?

A: We’re looking at several different areas. In building inspections, we’re looking at ways to bring about a more uniform interpretation of the State Building Code. We have a strong interest in criminal investigations. We’re one of the few state agencies that have sworn law enforcement officers that we’re responsible for. We’re short of sworn law enforcement officers. [They investigate] white-collar crime, insurance fraud. We get anywhere from 400-500 a month [in] referrals from insurance companies. We have things that involve construction, roofing contractors, for example, staged accidents. They have a case they’re working on that involves Medicaid fraud. There’s a wide range of anything that would be under white-collar crime and insurance fraud. And then, another area that we want to strengthen is the Office of the State Fire Marshal, because the volunteer fire departments and all fire departments are so important to their local communities. We want to make sure we have enough staff to adequately take care of the needs of our volunteer firefighters — the certification, the training, the inspections of the fire departments, our rescue squads need a lot of help and support. It’s been written about recently how hard it is for volunteer fire departments to get volunteers these days. That’s something we want to work on — to enhance the junior firefighter program, get it in all the schools, to let the students know about the opportunities as firefighters, whether it be career firefighters or volunteer firefighters.

Q: How are you going to operate the office differently from your predecessor?

A: I don’t see any major changes other than to maybe empower the employees to make it more transparent, to open up the lines of communication, and again to make it more user-friendly, for not only for outside customers, but for the people who work here, for the employees. We’re moving to a new building. We have the entire building — the Albemarle Building — it’s being completely renovated. All 11 floors will be our building. We’re not sure the timeframe, but we think it’ll be the end of March or first of April if they don’t push it back any further. That will help us a lot, bring the department under one roof. Right now, we’re scattered out. We lost the lease on the Chapanoke Road [building] where the Office of the State Fire Marshal [was located]. So right now, our Office of the State Fire Marshal is operating out the basement of the Administration Building. It’s a pretty rough working condition. We’ve got another building on Boylan Avenue, the Seniors Health Information Program. We’ve got about 75 employees over there. When this new building is finished, we can take all of the people scattered around in this building and the other two buildings and bring them under one roof. We have … over 400 positions.

Q: How do you feel about the N.C. Rate Bureau, and do you want to see any changes? Do you think the Legislature should make any changes with the Rate Bureau?

A: The Legislature will have to make any changes with the Rate Bureau because they’re in charge of the Rate Bureau. We’ve had several meetings with the Rate Bureau. They’ve been positive. We’re looking at different options. The insurance companies are divided. They have varying opinions on what the role of the Rate Bureau should be. We’re looking at all sides and trying to come up with a common sense solution that would benefit the majority of people in North Carolina.

Q: Four years ago, when you ran for insurance commissioner, one of the issues at the time was homeowner insurance premiums, particularly down on the coast. You had some problems with that. What are the issues today?

A: They still have serious issues. But the issues today are not as drastic as they were at that time. The issues today are lack of competition. There’s too few companies that are willing to write homeowners coverage in the coastal counties. From everything that I’ve been told about the Beach Plan [a government-mandated, industry-run entity that sells insurance policies to homeowners who can’t get coverage on the private market], currently it’s on solid ground and solid footing. … North Carolina will be hosting the Southeastern Regulators Association the last weekend in April. All of the insurance commissioners and insurance regulators in the Southeastern states will be coming to North Carolina, to Asheville. We have a wonderful opportunity to showcase North Carolina and play host to our neighboring states. We’ll be discussing some of those things with the other coastal states. I’m sure later this year the Rate Bureau will have their own proposals on the coverage. We were fortunate. I think there was a plan to raise rates on the coastal counties. After some discussions with the Rate Bureau, they decided to hold off on any rate increases for now.

Q: What do you think about the auto insurance high-risk pool? What do you think about proposals to move away from that so that good drivers aren’t paying more and drivers who have bad records are paying more of their share?

A: There’s a need for a high-risk pool. I think one of the problems right now is there seems to be too many clean drivers being put into the high-risk pool. I think they’re looking at ways to reduce the size of the high-risk pool, because the facility shouldn’t have as many drivers as are in there. The insurance industry is divided. You’ve got some companies that like it just the way it is. You’ve got other companies that don’t like it all and want to change it or do away with it. We have to bring all of the stakeholders together, discuss the issues, and see where we can find common ground.

Q: A lot of the auto insurance companies say they’d like to get some of the things changed as far as the Rate Bureau is concerned so they can offer marketing discounts. What do you think about that?

A: I do like the idea of consumers being able to get the discounts that are offered in other states. I also understand that there’s other companies that like the system we have now. It works for them. But for some other companies, the system doesn’t work for them as well. That’s why this proposal that came up some years ago — I’ve heard some of the legislators say they may roll it out at some point in the future — to allow companies an opt out provision, if they want to opt out of the Rate Bureau. I think it’s worth looking at all sides. The car insurance rates right now, they’re not a problem like some of the property insurance rates are in coastal areas. There’s certainly always room for improvement.

Q: What is your role with Obamacare? Will it change? What degree do you regulate healthcare now?

A: Right now, health care is primarily regulated at the federal level, because of the Affordable Care Act. That could change if Congress decides to kick it back to the states. We did get a request from [U.S. House] Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. We had to send our proposal for health care. We did that. We got input from health insurance companies, from doctors, from health-care providers, from health insurance agents. And we put together a three- or four-page letter, which is available to the public. We gave a copy to the Senate. The insurance commissioner still has to make sure agents are licensed properly. We [issue] over 660,000 licenses a year in this department. You’ve got all kinds of insurance, you’ve got insurance companies, you’ve got bail bondsmen, you’ve got security bondsmen, collection agents, a whole host of things. We provide information through the Seniors [Health] Information Program about Medicare health insurance. It’s certainly an important regulatory role, but we don’t have control over the rates like auto and homeowners.

In January, stories broke about a Facebook meme Causey shared that poked fun at some of the women involved in a recent march in Washington, D.C. He has since apologized.

Q: Given your experience a couple of weeks ago, what do you think about social media. What are you going to do with that?

A: I don’t have any social media. The only social media I have is what [communications director] Bob [Rosser] has. I did have a social media manager. We had Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-in. We had it all over the state for the campaign. It served us well for the campaign. But people can get in trouble with social media, so we decided to do away with personal social media and let the Department of Insurance have social media. We have a website.