The state Division of Insurance's new auto insurance Web site apparently has been popular with consumers, generating an average of about 19,500 hits a day since its launch a month ago. But the InsureMASS site, which is designed to be a roadmap to help navigate the competitive insurance market that begins here next month, isn't winning any popularity contests in insurance industry circles.
The state Division of Insurance's new auto insurance Web site apparently has been popular with consumers, generating an average of about 19,500 hits a day since its launch a month ago.
But the InsureMASS site, which is designed to be a roadmap to help navigate the competitive insurance market that begins here next month, isn't winning any popularity contests in insurance industry circles.
The Web site does offer a useful database of insurance agents. But drivers who log on to the site will most likely focus on its insurance premium comparison tool.
That rate comparison system has created plenty of buzz among insurance agents, although it's probably not the kind of buzz that Insurance Commissioner Nonnie Burnes would have wanted.
The Massachusetts Association of Insurance Agents recently expressed its concerns about the site to Burnes.
Frank Mancini, the trade group's president, says consumers who use the site to try to find the insurer that would offer them the best rates probably will be given misleading information. The site, in all likelihood, will spit out premiums that are either too high or too low, Mancini says.
The problem lies in the amount of information that the site accepts before it gives you a list of sample rate quotes. The rate-shopping tool considers only six factors, such as an estimate of the number of miles you drive each year and the make of your car.
And the options among those factors are quite limited. You can only pick from one of four vehicles and from one of three different figures for your annual mileage. The idea is to choose a vehicle and driving history that comes closest to your own. But the vast range of cars and drivers out on the roads today can make this a tough comparison.
In fairness, the insurance agency places a disclaimer, in bold print, on the site to show that the rates are merely samples used to guide shopping decisions and shouldn't be relied on as actual rate quotes.
But David Solomon, the president of Amity Insurance Agency Inc. in Quincy, says he worries that many consumers aren't going to pay much attention to the disclaimer and instead will focus on the dollar figures that show up on their computer screens. He says the division's simplistic rate-setting system leaves out a wide range of discounts, including loyalty discounts for sticking with an insurer for an extended period of time or using a company for both home and auto coverage.
Although they don't usually deal with customers directly, executives at some insurers share the same concerns raised by their independent agents about the Web site.
Susan Scott, general counsel for Travelers of Massachusetts, says customers' actual annual premiums could be several hundreds of dollars higher or lower than the premiums quoted on the division's site.
Scott, whose division is also known here as Premier Insurance, says the state's site helpfully offers consumers a glimpse of a few of the most important factors used in insurance ratings, but leaves out most of the rate-setting calculations. A more useful approach, she says, would offer consumers the full range of prices that they could expect from each insurer.
Not everyone in the industry became concerned by the Web site after they checked it out. For example, John Donohue, CEO of Arbella Insurance Group in Quincy, says the site lived up to his expectations. Consumers, he says, can at least use the site to narrow down the list of insurers they should consider.
He says the list of the companies providing the five best sample rate quotes would probably be the same for a particular motorist, even if the real premium quotes are off a bit.
Donohue says it took his company six months to pull together a software system for agents to be able to provide accurate quotes for Arbella policies. That's just one company. The Division of Insurance had to come up with a way of quoting rates for at least 20 companies.
Donohue says the division's approach was an imperfect one, but the only one that it could take. He says the agency needed some sort of guide for consumers who are unfamiliar with shopping for car insurance, but creating a comprehensive database would have been logistically impossible.
Kim Haberlin, a spokeswoman for the Division of Insurance, says the agency is working to address the concerns that the agents raised about the Web site. For example, she says the site will be tweaked so a box will pop up on the screen when consumers search for rate results, repeating the disclaimer that the dollar figures represent sample premiums.
Haberlin says the division hasn't yet heard a complaint from one consumer about the site.
The agents who are worried about the InsureMASS site should take some comfort in this fact that's underscored by the debate: Their services are more important than they've ever been now that Bay State drivers actually have such wide range of choices in the state's auto insurance market.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.