Duggan: Lower car insurance rates ‘civil rights’ issue

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Democratic Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard huddled Tuesday in the Michigan Capitol as they negotiated final details of a pending proposal to cut statewide auto insurance costs.

The plan, months in the making, could be introduced as soon as next week.

“We had a very productive meeting,” Leonard, R-DeWitt, said after emerging from his office with Duggan and House Insurance Committee Chair Lana Theis, R-Brighton. “I think we are very close to delivering serious rate relief for the citizens of this state.”

While Duggan and Leonard declined to discuss details of the plan, it is expected to include an option allowing some or all drivers to purchase lower-cost plans that cap lifetime medical benefits for catastrophically injured motorists, which are unlimited under current law.

Seniors should not be forced to buy auto insurance with unlimited personal injury protection if they already have guaranteed health coverage through Medicare, Duggan said.

The mayor wants the plan to include a guaranteed rate rollback of “a substantial amount” for drivers and made clear the legislation will include a “reasonable” fee schedule to cap the amount medical providers can charge injured motorists.

Those provisions may not fly with Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, who blasted an early outline of the plan that would have mandated insurers reduce premiums by up to 30 percent, calling it a form of “price fixing.”

Duggan did not respond directly to the criticism but told reporters he considers lowering car insurance rates “one of the fundamental civil rights issues facing Detroit.”

“Right now people of low-income cannot legally drive to work, can’t legally take the $12-an-hour jobs,” he said. “In Michigan right now, you either have the most expensive car insurance in America, or you’re driving illegally.”

Michigan premiums averaged $1,351 in 2014, the third highest rate in the country, according to a National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ report released in January. Insure.com recently pegged Michigan’s full-coverage average premiums as the nation’s highest at $2,394.

Duggan is running for re-election against Democratic state Sen. Coleman Young II, who sits on the Senate Insurance Committee and has accused the mayor of doing too little, too late to address sky-high auto rates and alleged “redlining” in the city.

House leadership has praised Duggan’s push to reform the state’s auto no-fault system, which legislators have talked about for years. Duggan pushed a Detroit-specific plan that failed to advance last session.

“This is going to have to be done in a bipartisan fashion,” Leonard said. “It’s not going to be done with just Republican votes, and it’s not going to be done with just Democrat votes.

“It’s going to be incumbent on the mayor to deliver Democrat votes for us, and I’m very optimistic he’s going to be able to do this for us.”

Meekhof, who met with Duggan to discuss auto insurance early this month, said the plan the mayor outlined for him would be “dead” on arrival in the Senate. The majority leader made clear he wants to pursue rate relief but does not support government-mandated rate reductions.

“I’ve not spoken to him about this,” Leonard said of Meekhof. “I can only control what happens in the House, and I am committed to ensuring we fix this rigged system and deliver serious rate relief to the citizens of this state.”

A bipartisan group of state legislators last week fired the opening salvo in what is expected to be a fierce fall debate over auto insurance reform.

Their plan would maintain unlimited lifetime injury benefits but seeks to lower costs by combating fraud, establishing fees for some medical providers and prohibiting insurers from using “non-driving factors” like zip codes or gender to set rates.

“We’re looking forward to a conversation that will produce some level of compromise,” said Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, who is championing the plan backed by the Coalition to Protect Auto No-Fault. “We’ve got to do this together.”

Duggan’s office has been engaging Democrats in auto insurance reform talks, Gay-Dagnogo said. She’s found common ground with the mayor’s team on some fronts, like reducing rates for seniors, but wants her bill to prohibit insurers from considering non-driving factors to be part of the final plan.

State Rep. Fred Durhal III, D-Detroit, said he’s eager to see an actual plan from Duggan to compare with other proposals.

“The devil’s in the details,” Durhal said. “There’s a lot of things floating around about it providing maybe some cost reduction, but we don’t know what that’s dependent on. Is it a cut in benefits?”

Leonard has credited Duggan with building a coalition to support auto no fault reform, both inside and outside of the state Legislature.

Asked about the size of that coalition, Duggan pegged the membership number at “somewhere around 500,000” people, referencing drivers in Detroit.

Leonard said he thinks there’s an even larger coalition, citing “six million drivers in this state who want to see rate relief.”