State bureaucrat Bob Muise turned answer man, counselor and crying towel on Thursday as hundreds of confused people throughout California turned to a telephone hot line manned by the Department of Insurance in Los Angeles to better understand Proposition 103, the insurance rate rollback initiative adopted on Tuesday.
“Yes ma’am, pay your premiums. Don’t let your insurance lapse,” he said over and over again like a broken record to people thinking that they shouldn’t pay their insurance bills until confusion over the initiative is resolved.
“We don’t know when you’ll get your rate rollback,” he’d say just as often during the day. “Everything’s on hold until the state Supreme Court decides what to do.”
“No sir, you won’t get a refund on premiums already paid.”
And so it went, with Muise handling each call in an incoming stream as if it were the first of the day, with courtesy and patience.
On a normal working day, the department’s Consumer Services Division, which operates a toll-free consumer hot line, handles about 800 calls, ranging from complaints about insurance companies, to where to find cheaper insurance, to how to file claims.
But on Wednesday and Thursday, that figure nearly doubled--the result of consumer confusion over Proposition 103 and how it will affect them. Usually, nine people handle the phone calls; on Thursday, 11 people--including Muise, who was diverted from his regular work as a rate analyst--were on the phones as calls backed up.
The answer from the hot line operators became somewhat stock after mid-morning Thursday, when the state Supreme Court ordered that the initiative be stayed to give the justices time to weigh an anguished insurance industry’s challenge to the law’s constitutionality.
Everything’s in limbo, callers were told, until the Supreme Court reviews the legality of it. We don’t have any answers either, consumer representatives said.
“Yes, I hope the court will be prompt too,” Muise told a caller wondering how long before the justices decide the proposition’s validity.
“I’m sure it’ll be a while,” he told another caller with the same question.
“No, your insurance company can’t declare itself insolvent. That determination has to be made by the insurance commissioner’s office,” Muise told a caller from Northern California who was told by his agent that the company was going out of business.
“Oh no, don’t hold off paying your premium,” Muise said to a caller who seemed especially smitten by the notion of not paying the bill because the premium might be reduced soon. “The current rates stay in effect. If you don’t pay your premium, your policy will lapse. Don’t let that happen!”
Another caller seemed especially perturbed that the insurance industry was so arrogant as to challenge the legality of Proposition 103--and that the Supreme Court agreed.
“I’m not familiar with the legal system,” Muise answered. “But yeah, they can do that.” Thank you, Civics 101. Still, the caller wasn’t convinced. “I’m sure what they’re doing is legal,” Muise repeated, gently shaking his head. “The Supreme Court knows the law better than I do, and that (the stay) is what they’ve done.”
Another caller--identifying himself as an insurance agent--called to find out whether the court stay was real or rumor.
“Well, I heard it on the news myself,” Muise said.
“Well, if it’s on the news, it must be official.”
“Well, you can always call the Supreme Court clerk directly, in San Francisco.”
A woman called--not with a question, but to offer her unsolicited thoughts about the insurance industry. “They have no right to fight the will of the people. It’s legal!” Muise quoted her as saying.
A different caller: “How dare the Supreme Court put a stay on it!”
One man said his insurance policy was renewed on Monday, a day before Proposition 103 would become law. Will he get a rebate?
Nope, but Muise was genuinely sympathetic. “You missed it by just one day? Oh, isn’t that terrible? Well, it’s not the end of the world.”
Another caller, another question. “It remains to be seen,” he answered, “whether territorial rates will be abolished, and whether Marin County rates go up and L.A. rates go down. That possibility wouldn’t occur, if it does at all, until November of 1989.”
At times during Muise’s work day, it seemed he was mimicking a Bob Newhart telephone monologue. Consider this call, apparently by a man angry at everyone involved with The System.
After a few attempts at answering the man’s questions, it was apparent the conversation was degenerating.
“Sir, I can’t talk about polluted water and atomic power.”
“Yes sir, I’ll take your advice.”
“Yes sir, I’ll hang up. Thank you, sir.”
Ring. Another call. . . .