When you have a question about insurance, you can go straight to a Google search. But with thousands of results, the right answer may be buried among wrong information and bad advice.
You can call your insurance company or ask your favorite uncle, but there is another resource you may not have thought of, and it’s one you, as a taxpayer, help to fund. It’s your state’s department of insurance, and it has a website you may want to bookmark.
What is a department of insurance?
Insurance is regulated at the state level, so each state, as well as the District of Columbia, has its own insurance department suited to help people like you. Each department is tasked with one overarching duty: regulating insurance for the protection of consumers. To that end, they serve several roles: licensing insurance companies and agents, regulating insurance policies and rates, reviewing insurance company practices, and serving consumers through education and complaint resolution.
Despite many similarities, how each state chooses to fill these roles varies widely. For example, all state insurance departments have websites, but the offerings and services on these sites can be vastly different.
A recent analysis by NerdWallet ranked these websites based on just how helpful they are to consumers and found the average department of insurance scored just 60% on metrics such as the sharing of premium comparison tools, complaint data, consumer education and consumer assistance.
For full study results and to see how your state’s insurance department website performed, click here.
What this NerdWallet study means for you: You could live in a state with a robust insurance department website. If so, you’ll likely find the tools needed to answer many of your insurance questions and more. However, if your state’s website is lacking, you can phone or email the department for answers. In either case, your state’s department of insurance should be able to help you with the following things.
What can an insurance department help with?
Understanding your insurance
If you have a question about your policy or a claim, or you don’t understand the basics of auto, home, health or life insurance, your insurance department should be able to help. Many have consumer help lines set up specifically for this reason. And most have consumer education resources on their websites including insurance buyers guides, a glossary of insurance terms and frequently asked questions.
Choosing an insurance company
In addition to possibly having an insurance buyers guide or at least tips on choosing the right insurance, some insurance departments also display rate comparisons and share complaint data.
These rate comparison tools are not the same as getting a quote — many factors go into pricing an insurance policy. But they can help identify carriers that tend to offer lower prices in your ZIP code. Also, many of these agencies share insurance company complaint data. This means you can compare how many complaints each insurance company has and use them as one factor in choosing a carrier.
Problems with your insurance company
State departments of insurance are responsible for investigating complaints against insurers, and most allow you to file those complaints online. The complaint could be against an insurance company, an agency or an individual agent. Common complaints include: unfair claims denials, delays in claim handling, a refusal of insurance, excessive fees or charges, unfair settlement offers, increased premiums without notification, unfair policy cancellation and allegations of fraud.
Checking the status of an agent or insurance company in your state
All states offer a license lookup tool on their website. This means you can type in an insurance agent or company’s name and check the status of their license. In many cases, you’ll also be able to see if the agent or company had any enforcement actions taken against them.
If you can’t find the answer you need
If your insurance department’s website lacks the tool or information you’re after, call it. In many cases, the person on the other end is equipped to answer your questions. If not, he or she can direct you to someone qualified.
As with any customer service, you can escalate your request or call if you don’t think you’re getting the response you’re entitled to. And because your tax dollars help fund this department, you should feel empowered to ask for any services it's lacking.
Insurance departments are lobbied by insurance companies but don’t receive the same sort of pressure from consumers, says Robert Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. “Consumers should be calling on their states to be excellent and holding them to the best standards,” Hunter says.
So don’t be afraid to make reasonable but firm requests of your state’s department of insurance.
How to contact your state insurance department