NU Online News Service, Oct. 27, 12:45 p.m. EDT

The leader of an insurance industry organization responded to a National Underwriter opinion piece, authored by a university professor, calling for greater transparency in homeowners insurance.

In a letter to the editor e-mailed to National Underwriter yesterday, Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York, said “Professor Daniel Schwarcz and I must agree to disagree on the transparency level, and regulatory environment, which prevails in the U.S. homeowners insurance market.

“Potential policyholders can review an insurer’s policy forms prior to purchasing this essential product. They only need to make such a request of their insurance company representative or agent.”

He added, “Savvy consumers do this every day.”

Mr. Hartwig’s letter was written in response to an opinion piece authored by Professor Schwarcz that was published in this week’s edition of NU magazine. (Oct. 25, 2010 edition, page 34).

In his commentary, Mr. Schwarcz suggested that regulators and lawmakers should consider setting a minimum floor of coverage for personal lines policies, asserting among other things that:

o Insurers refuse to make their policy forms publicly available, only making them available to consumers after coverage is purchased.

o Agents, for the most part, believe that all homeowners policy forms are essentially the same.

o Regulators generally do not even have complete copies of policy forms in their files.

In his letter to the editor, Mr. Hartwig also noted that “state regulators generally keep on file policy forms dating back five-to-10 years. But is the public really clamoring to see what a typical homeowners insurance policy looked like in 2002 when they’re buying a home in 2010? Probably not.”

During a presentation at the summer meeting of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners in August, Professor Schwarcz stated that based on his research, the traditional homeowners insurance policy is no longer standardized among carriers.

Mr. Hartwig first responded in a rebuttal that appeared in the Oct. 11 edition of NU, titled “Greater Choice Key To Homeowners Market,” arguing that standardization of policy forms is less desirable than the current situation–one in which he says hundreds of competing insurers offer “thousands of options,” giving them freedom to choose those that best suit their needs and budgets.

Mr. Schwarcz then countered with the opinion piece published earlier this week.

“Although ‘greater choice’ may indeed be valuable to consumers, true choice requires transparency,” he wrote.

“Both in my Seattle testimony and in my research, I have explored how it is virtually impossible for consumers to comparison shop on the basis of…pervasive differences in policy forms,” Professor Schwarcz wrote.

In his most recent letter, Mr. Hartwig concluded: “Independent and captive agents, in my view, inherently understand that all homeowners policy forms are, to some extent, quite different. That is why premium prices differ, with more expensive policies generally but not always offering a broader level of coverage, and vice-versa.”

Separately, NU editors sought an opinion on the debate between Professor Schwarcz and Mr. Hartwig from personal lines coverage experts in the research division of Summit Business Media, the parent company of National Underwriter.

Basing her opinion on industry experience rather than any hard data or research, Christine G. Barlow, FC&S Associate Editor agreed with Mr. Hartwig.

“Agents do know the policies, and most insureds won’t sit still for an explanation of coverage. I can’t imagine insureds reading and comparing policy jackets,” she said.

If personal lines insurance agents did not know the coverages, there would be a flood of E&O claims filed against them, she said. In addition, Ms. Barlow said policies cannot be standardized because insureds’ needs are different.

Professor Schwarcz believes that most deviations in coverage from standard forms of the Insurance Services Office offer narrower coverage.