By Max J. Rosenthal
Unlike many other businesses, the insurance industry is bound by law to act in good faith with its customers. Because of their protective role in the lives of ordinary citizens, insurers have long operated as semi-public trusts. But since the mid-1990s, a new profit-hungry model, combined with weak regulation, has upended that ancient social contract.
"Claims has been converted into a money-making process," said Russ Roberts, a New Mexico-based management consultant and former business professor at Northwestern University who has studied the insurance industry's evolution from a service business to a profit-driven machine.
The change started when consulting giant McKinsey & Company sold Allstate and other leading insurance companies on a new system to boost the bottom line: Rather than adjusting claims the traditional way, which gave claims managers wide latitude to serve customers, insurers embraced a computer-driven method that produced purposefully low offers to claimants.
Those who took the low-ball offers received prompt service, while those who didn't had their claims delayed and potentially were reduced to bringing expensive lawsuits to fight for their benefits. As former Allstate agent Shannon Kmatz told the American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers' lobby, the strategy was to make claims "so expensive and so time-consuming that lawyers would start refusing to help clients." The strategy was dubbed "Good Hands or Boxing Gloves" by the consultants, riffing on Allstate's advertising slogan.
McKinsey, which was reportedly hired by Allstate in 1992, prepared about 12,500 PowerPoint slides to present its plan. The slides were introduced in litigation in 2005, when the insurer turned them over under a temporary protective order. David Berardinelli, a New Mexico-based trial lawyer who was working on the case, detailed the slides in his 2008 book, "From Good Hands to Boxing Gloves: The Dark Side of Insurance."
McKinsey's strategy put profits above all. One slide in the McKinsey presentation illustrated this philosophy by painting the insurance business as a zero-sum game: "Improving Allstate's casualty economics will have a negative economic impact on some medical providers, plaintiff attorneys, and claimants. ... Allstate gains -- others must lose."
Roberts told HuffPost that, by his estimate, the companies that take in 70 percent of total insurance profits in the United States now abuse their obligations to their policyholders. When Allstate CEO Tom Wilson earned $9.3 million last year, he was not even on the top 10 list of best-paid insurance executives, compiled by New York Law School's Center for Justice and Democracy. (The top 10 list was led by William R. Berkley of W.R. Berkley, who made $24.6 million in 2010.)
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